When does proofreading become plagiarism?

Experts say rules are too unclear in light of rise of online commercial checking services

June 12, 2019
Source: Getty
On page, it’s me all over ‘there are many legitimate proofreaders, but also a lot that are fronts for contract cheating services’

Getting someone else to write an essay is clearly cheating, but what if a student has another person proofread their work? Pointing out a missed comma seems fairly innocent, but what if the proofreader rewrote whole sentences or even paragraphs? And what if the student had paid them to do so?

Who is permitted to proofread and revise an essay is a tricky subject, one made even more so since the proliferation of proofreading services that charge for their work available over the internet.

In 2011, the scandal over alleged plagiarism by and excessive assistance given to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi during his doctoral studies at the London School of Economics thrust the issue into the spotlight in the UK.

Since then, many universities in the country have developed guidelines on the subject. However, experts now warn that a lack of uniformity across the sector risks unfairly penalising students or creating loopholes that allow cheaters to escape sanction. Guidelines vary by institution, but all insist that a student must unambiguously be the author of work they present as their own.

The University of Leeds’ policy says responsibility for proofreading work before submission rests with the individual student. Although students are permitted to “peer-review”, the reviewer may only comment on the work, not directly amend it.

The University of Reading encourages students to seek guidance from their school, but adds that any third-party editing must be acknowledged in a written statement. Coventry University’s regulations do not bar proofreaders, but do state that the use of one must “not compromise the authorship of the submitted work”.

Michael Draper, dean of regulations and student cases at Swansea University and director of the Swansea Academy for Inclusivity and Learner Success, said the issue has gone under the radar for some time.

“The key question is: at what point do changes made by a proofreader become so extensive that the work can no longer be fairly said to be that of the student, so as to impact on the assessment of learning outcomes?” he said.

Some assessments award marks for accurate spelling and grammar, so even proofreading to this extent can be a problem, although this is normally acceptable. Proofing code formulae and equations in science and mathematics subjects is a particular issue, Professor Draper said.

Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial College London, said the use of proofreaders was “a grey area in higher education right now”, noting that the main concern in assessment was whether the tutor was marking the work of the student, not that of a third party.

“There are many legitimate proofreaders out there, but also a lot that are fronts for contract cheating services. The way they advertise, it’s hard for students to know the difference,” he said.

This is backed up by the Quality Assurance Agency’s guidelines on cheating, which warn that “such services can be a gateway to full-scale contract cheating”.

Allowing the use of these services also raised a question of fairness, said Professor Draper, because students who could afford to pay for such assistance would enjoy an advantage over those who could not. “Any policy must be made having regard to that context,” he said.

Adam Harvey, chief executive of Proofed, a proofreading business, said he supported – and was looking to develop – a uniform set of proofreading and editing guidelines across universities. This “will ensure that students don’t inadvertently plagiarise. It will also provide transparency in the academic process and allow proofreading companies to standardise their service according to an agreed-upon policy,” he said.

For Irene Glendinning, academic manager for student experience at Coventry, proofreading is “a legitimate stage in the process of writing. It is difficult for an author to objectively proofread their own work, for many reasons.

“I was surprised to hear that proofreading is not allowed in some HEIs. This seems to be a very excessive response to what should be a manageable issue,” she said.

“Employing someone else – paid or otherwise – to help find the typos and point out areas that need attention is nothing to do with plagiarism,” she said. “The proofreader needs to be constrained by the guidelines in what they are permitted to change, and they need to be competent and proficient, ideally trained and professional in their approach, with some endorsement or certification.”

Guidelines should specify that if assessed work is proofread, the student must keep copies of their originals to demonstrate exactly what changes have been made by the proofreader, said Dr Glendinning, to counter any fears of unfair assistance.

Dr Lancaster agreed. “The student should have a copy of their work before and after proofreading and should acknowledge the use of a proofreader on their submission,” he said. “If there are any factual changes or the argument the student has put forward has been rewritten, the proofreader has gone too far.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Just another pair of eyes, or a means to plagiarise?

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Reader's comments (12)

In our HR training module necessary to chair interview panels, we have been told emphatically that to judge someone by their spelling, say on their application or cv, is elitist. Even if the role demands considerable skill in regard to written communication.
That seems very odd since if one of the criteria (or even competences) needed is written communication skill then it has to come into the process. I presume one does not apply the rule to, say, the possession of a relevant degree or PhD. It seems totally unsatisfactory to say that carelessness in preparing a CV or application is acceptable, Like most folks of my age, I am only a step or two removed from the so-called working class and my grandparents (factory workers) would certainly have thought that documents should be as well-prepared as possible.
I'm unhappy to write that I believe this!!
Are we conflating two separate issues? Proofreading is a term that derives from the printing industry and refers to checking that the "proof print" from a set of printing plates / films to be later used for the production run is an accurate representation of the writer or, in the case of news papers, the writers, editors and the compositors work. What you appear to be talking about here is spread across grammar and spell checking, editing and even tutoring. For instance when you refer to missing commas etc, this activity could be automated by the likes of e.g. Grammarly, pointing out that a statement of fact has no reference or that a particular piece of cited evidence has several interpretations of which only one is reported is more of a tutorship role.
This is confused. Proofreading is NOT copy editing, copy editing, is not substantive editing, substantive editing is NOT rewriting, as professionals in ANY of these fields would be happy to point out. It is similarly confused in its description of its target population of students. Are they all undergraduates? Undergraduates plus Graduate students in English? I work with life science PhD candidates, and *none* of them are restricted in their use of proofreaders or editors, and those with difficulties with language turn to both of those professions, and to co-authors. As do native speakers. I cannot believe that your author feels that the development of, say, a new antibiotic, hinges on the ability of its developer to describe the work in English, and yet...
"In our HR training module necessary to chair interview panels, we have been told emphatically that to judge someone by their spelling, say on their application or cv, is elitist" So you don't want the very best to work for you?
As a tenured academic, I would never submit a paper, a grant application, a report, a CV or cover letter, or even in important cases, an email without having someone else look at the text first. Why would we deny this to students when we do it ourselves? I previous commenter brought up the difference between proof-reading, copy-editing, substantive editing and re-writing. The fact that people not in that profession are not clear on the distinction between these is exactly why we need thorough guidelines on where the borders lie.
So students should disable the spelling and grammar checks on their word processing software?
Beware of the so called proof reading service. I have encountered essay mill services hiding behind 'proof reading'. Also, If you have half a brain you should not need to pay for proof reading - how lazy
If this is an issue, then a fairly easily implemented safeguard would be to demand submission of the original and corrected draft alongside the final version. If students know they have to submit these, they'll be much more likely to check the guidelines first. And if excessive editing is suspected, the material will be easily available for checking. Of course, students may deny they had any help, which would result in very severe penalties if caught as a deterrent. This should be fairly easy to implement through online virtual learning environments, and wouldn't require a lot of extra work, so long as markers weren't expected to study the drafts every time.
When academic staff are forbidden to have their books edited they might then turn their attention to this issue regarding their students. Editing is the least of the genuine plagiarism problems affecting academia itoday.
"today" (where is my editor)

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