Ruth Scurr

December 15, 2006

How illiterate are today's students? It is increasingly difficult to tell. Last month, I received an e-mail headed: "Proofreading your essays, reports, dissertations and other professional documents." I opened it because I suspected it had been sent to me by mistake. I was right. "Dear Student," it began, "Do you sometimes feel that minor mistakes in your writing can lead to lower marks? Proof-Reading-Service.com would like to offer you a service that gives you more confidence in the work you submit."

Besides getting rid of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, the canny entrepreneurs behind this venture offer to "reduce repetition in the way you express your ideas", "check tables and footnotes for accuracy" and "ensure your bibliography is complete". Like a high-class escort agency, Proof-Reading-Service.com promises to be "discreet" and is upfront about charges. "Our special student rates are £6.50 per thousand words or 0.65 pence per word." So, the charges approximately work at £13 for a weekly essay, £97.50 for a dissertation and £520 for a PhD.

The clear expression of ideas in writing and the provision of a supporting framework of references (tables, footnotes and bibliography) are fundamental academic skills.J The people behind Proof-Reading-Service. com know this and point out that their team "is made up of professional academics and proofreaders with many years of experience".

This is very reassuring if you are thinking of forking out £13 a week to improve your grades. Less reassuring if you are the prospective employer of a student who has bought his or her way out of acquiring basic literacy and presentation skills.

Trade of this kind is not novel. There have always been students who need extra help with their written work. Some are studying in their second or third language, and their conceptual grasp can easily outstrip their capacity to compose English prose. Before entrepreneurs spotted a gap in the market, students sought help from their peers. I once proofread a German friend's PhD. She gave me dinner and flowers, not £520.

Supervisors, tutors and lecturers also invest many unpaid hours improving their students' uneven texts. Some are more generous with their time than others, but there is a general understanding that academics, like schoolteachers, do a certain amount of unpaid labour. Helping a foreign student with their spelling, punctuation and prose typically falls into the unpaid category.

But for how much longer? Commercial ventures such as Proof-Reading-Service.com raise new questions for academics and students.

If professional academics employed by a profit-making company are being paid to tidy up students' texts anonymously, why should others continue to do it for free for the students they happen to teach?

One good reason is couched in the verb "to teach". Helping someone express themselves clearly, avoid repetition and properly reference their work may not be the most elaborate set of skills a supervisor imparts to his or her students, but they are essential. Delegating these skills to a commercial service will do nothing to improve a student's literacy. The service is designed to disguise illiteracy, not combat it.

Why should academics care? Isn't this just one fewer unpaid job for us? First, there is the issue of fairness. How many students, close to the deadline for submitting their doctoral thesis, happen to have £520 spare to spend on proofreading? Which students can find £13 a week to spend on brushing up their prose? Commercial proofreading helps wealthy students purchase higher grades.

Second, there is the matter of being duped. It is still true that grammatical errors, misspellings, repetition and sloppy footnotes bring down grades. It is always a relief to come across a well-structured essay flawlessly presented. But that relief is now tempered by suspicion: am I reading the unadulterated work of a promising student or something from Proof-Reading-Service.com?J The blossoming of online services to improve (or even produce) student work is turning academics into detectives. It is no longer enough to read an essay and mark it. To avoid being tricked into giving a student a higher than deserved grades, one must also double guess whether they have resorted to purchasing professional help.

Proofreading is a mild problem in comparison with plagiarism. But it is no less undermining of the relationship between student and teacher.

Personally, I would rather not spend my time honing my surveillance skills and scouring the web for the "discreet" (that is, difficult to detect) services my students may or may not have been using to improve their essays. Nor do I relish devising ever more subtle methods of confronting the authors of suspiciously good essays. If I had wanted a career in the police or MI5, both were open to me.

Ruth Scurr is an affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and a fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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