Proofreading for students – are there any ethical issues?

There is a growing demand for proofreading services from students, both native English speakers and students from overseas studying in Britain whose native language is not English. But are there any ethical issues involved?

During the course of their studies, university and college students will be required to produce assignments, essays, theses, and dissertations. There have been arguments that schools do not prepare their students for the requirements of universities when it comes to spelling, punctuation, and general writing skills. Also, with students from overseas for whom English may be a second or even third language, their grasp of the intricacies and nuances of spelling, grammar, and punctuation may be tenuous. To get good grades students will naturally want to buy-in proofreading services to make up for any gap in their own skill set. But is this ethical?

The nearest university to me is the University of Leicester whose website states that the university believes students should carry out their own proofreading, but for those that lack the confidence or skill proofreading services can be engaged subject to strict rules, including some of the following.

What the student must do

1. All work submitted by students must be their own work and the use of a third-party proofreader must not compromise the authorship of the work.
2. Students should consult their supervisors with respect to using a freelance proofreader and ensure they observe the relevant rules or conditions.
3. Students should declare that a proofreader has been used with their submitted work.

Regarding point 1 above, universities now have computer programs that will check submitted work for any plagiarised material. It has been known for students to lift entire passages from previously published work and to pass off as their own.

What proofreaders may do

The proofreader may:

• identify spelling and punctuation errors
• identify poor grammar
• alert the student to formatting errors or inconsistencies
• identify errors in labelling of diagrams or figures
• advise the students of any sentences or paragraphs that are unclear, or any repeated phrases or possible missing words.

What proofreaders may not do

1. Proofreaders should not be asked to rewrite paragraphs or sentences to clarify the meaning, rearrange or reformat passages, alter the structure, or contribute any additional material. They may not edit the work.
2. Proofreaders should not relabel charts, diagrams, or figures.
3. They should not condense written material so that it fits within the word count limit.
4. References should not be cross-checked with external sources or to in-text citations to check they appear in the bibliography.

It is clear that students should be fully aware of what is expected of them in authorship and what they can expect of a proofreader in providing proofreading services.