Dear Ros & colleagues,
I normally skim-read this list but this time your message caught my eye! I've read with interest the other replies to the translation/proof reading question and wondered if you might benefit from another perspective. I believe I am most inclined to agree with Peter's comments, but here are some of my experiences "on the ground". When I was studying for my MPhil one of the ways I made extra money to cover cost of living expenses was proofreading for other students, normally MSc or PhD students, and very occasionally undergrads. This opened up a whole new world of information for me on how academic writing is judged in (depending on how you look at it) either a biased way or an arbitrary way (and I found it incredibly frustrating knowing some people passed their degrees with the level of work that I knew for a fact was handed in, even despite my best efforts).
I can perhaps shed some light on the ethics of undertaking this work while specifically aiming at student clients. I made it clear on my then-website, in discussion with clients and in my final feedback roundup what I would and wouldn't do. I would open a document and track changes, and correct spelling/convention mistakes, grammar, and make suggestions about syntax. I was not there to rewrite passages or sentences; in the event that an entire paper really needed to be rewritten, I would tell them so. My common refrain was that I could only correct what was there - I could not rewrite, write new content, or add information where the client had provided none. So, I believe that I adhered to a set of editing behaviours that were clearly limited in scope and appropriate for students writing a long thesis such as an MPhil or PhD. Copyediting and proofreading all refer primarily to mechanical corrections, the pointing out of errors whether of grammar, spelling or syntax. They are not the same as copywriting, ghostwriting, or editing a work with the aim of transforming the text to a preconceived mold (in this instance, something that will pass muster as a solidly written dissertation). I do firmly believe - as do several of you - that there is a distinction, and one of the first rules of freelancing is that you lay out your goals, intentions, and limitations with your clients before ever picking up a pen. I also had a policy, made known to prospective clients, of reporting to the University any solicitations made to commission written work (i.e. ghostwriting), and any plagiarism (if found). Though I advertised widely, I never once encountered a solicitation. My clients were honest, and so was I, although some of my clients needed a ghostwriter and not a proofreader!
On the subject of English proficiency & international students, this seemed to be a pretty substantial problem, both anecdotally and in my experience as a fellow postgrad. I don't want to overstate it - I'm sure people seeking proofreaders might skew my sample considerably, but I also don't think this should be let go. There needs to be either substantially more English-language and academic writing support for all levels, or Universities need to seriously tighten up their definitions and testing for language proficiency, in advance of taking on students. A student should be unable to get to the stage of handing in without previously demonstrating their ability to, largely independently, write well enough in English to produce a substantial academic work. This was certainly not the case with a small number of my clients. From my perspective, reading the supposed result of a year or more of research, they should never have been allowed onto their courses, let alone to complete - not only was the writing nearly incomprehensible, it was a mish-mash of translation, "paraphrasing", and Wikipedia citations.
That said, it's important to keep in mind that all written work (particularly that of students) is improved by the editorial eyes of colleagues. Whether it roots out unnoticed tics in someone's writing habits, or actually exposes a fault in the research itself, we all benefit. My PhD student friends would get me to look at their chapters as they went along, and I would get them to look at mine. This definitely involved extended discussions of syntax and even about content and source choice. These conversations developed everyone as better academics, and I'm sure no one here would object. Sometimes the criticisms and insights of your supervisor don't catch everything, and sometimes you aren't ready to show them your latest hot mess. I sometimes wonder if the same collegial relationships in the formative stages of writing up are developed by international students with English as a second language; I would question whether there is parity. Isolation and alienation are two social experiences that international students bear, on top of the normal isolation (independence?) of doing a research degree. Different students are scrutinised in different ways around certain practices. Sometimes this different scrutiny is for the right reasons, and sometimes it is not. This discussion is taking place in a context of rising xenophobia in the UK, HE being no exception.
Facility with English, pressure to perform, and sometimes pressure to cheat are all things our UK undergraduates and postgraduate students struggle with. Solutions to the problems that are being discussed should aim to solve the problem as one that exists (and is perhaps growing) in HE, rather than one that exists among international students. I have found as a student and now as a worker in HE that there can be hidden biases about international students that result in either scapegoating, stereotyping, or an approach that seeks to eradicate "the problem". Students, particularly international students, have often been implicated as "the problem" rather than the system itself not being built for its users. The act of seeking a proofreader/copyeditor for your thesis is generally not at the root of the problem, it is in my experience often a symptom of other problems - academic under-preparedness, lack of confidence, language barrier, lack of appropriate support, lack of appropriately stringent admission requirements or progression standards. Often it is not a symptom of anything other than wishing to do one's best- I have similarly proofed the dissertations of many highly capable, high-performing PhD students who simply wanted a pair of trained eyes to review their work for obvious typographical errors.
I hope this has been helpful in some way. I apologise for its length, especially on a Friday! Thank you for the opportunity to contribute.
With best wishes,
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