Is proofreading permissible?

Academics lack guidance on foreign students’ use of proofreaders. David Matthews reports

August 15, 2013

Some universities still lack clear policies on whether international students may use proofreaders or translators to help them with their work, it has emerged.

The issue has flared up amid concern that English-language entrance requirements are set too low, with one former proofreader saying that she often had to tidy up a “mish-mash of translation, ‘paraphrasing’, and Wikipedia citations”.

Ros Hampton, head of conduct and appeals at the University of Wolverhampton, wrote on the public academic discussion service Jiscmail that she was “looking at the advice (or lack of it) that my institution provides with regard to the use of translators and proof readers”.

A small number of international students were suspected of handing in commissioned essays, she said, but they insisted that they had used translators to convert their work into English or had used a proofreader to tidy up their writing.

Irene Glendinning, academic manager for student experience at Coventry University’s Faculty of Engineering and Computing, replied that her institution had also not yet put a policy in place although the issue had been “raised on several occasions recently and we are starting to look into it”.

She pointed out that in 2011 the Office of the Independent Adjudicator urged universities to develop policies on what kind of help students were allowed to access. It followed the scandal over alleged plagiarism and excessive assistance given to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi during his doctoral studies at the London School of Economics.

Diane Schmitt, a senior lecturer at the language centre at Nottingham Trent University, argued on Jiscmail that extra help was justified because institutions set the English-language bar for international students too low.

“English language levels set by most universities are market-led rather than based on research and experience,” she said.

“Given the starting English language level of most students”, they require “teaching, practice and interventions that go far beyond proofreading”, she added.

But Julian Wells, director of studies at Kingston University’s department of economics, wrote that proofreading should not be permitted below PhD level because if students could not express themselves “clearly” then they “haven’t properly understood” the subject matter.

Jennifer Krase, education development coordinator at Aberdeen University Students’ Association, used the discussion thread to recount her experience as a proofreader for undergraduates and postgraduates, a job she took on to earn extra money while an MPhil student.

Some clients’ standard of English was so poor that “they should never have been allowed on to their courses”, she said.

“Not only was the writing nearly incomprehensible, it was a mish-mash of translation, ‘paraphrasing’, and Wikipedia citations,” she said, although she stressed that she had only ever corrected errors of grammar, spelling and syntax and had not “rewritten” pieces of work.

“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,” she added.

In August last year, Times Higher Education revealed that nearly two-thirds of universities set English-language requirements for students from outside the European Union below the level recommended by an international testing organisation.

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Reader's comments (1)

It's a hard question, because if English-speaking universities want the tuition dollars of those for whom English is a second language, then they have to make reasonable accommodations. Yes, right now, translators are imperfect and can create quite inaccurate (and sometimes humorous) impressions of what a student has written. Perhaps that part of the equation has to be permitted to continue, and proofreaders concentrate their attention there. However - and it's a big however - bad scholarship through purloined quotes, Wikipedia cut-and-pastes and all the rest simply cannot be tolerated. There is a way to make sure that the dictates of ethical scholarship are followed, yet foreign students are cut a bit of slack on their English.

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