Proofreading Services: Ethical Issues
Professional proofreading services are becoming increasingly involved in the academic community, and in recent years there has been much debate about the extent to which proofreading is a permissible solution to the problem of inadequate student literacy – especially amongst non-native speakers.
There are varying views on this subject. At one end of the spectrum are those who regard proofreading services as nullifying the student’s claim to authorship; these people see proofreading services as effectively causing plagiarism amongst students by rewriting their work. Those who hold this viewpoint complain that students no longer need to improve their own writing skills because by simply paying a professional they can compensate for their deficiencies and avoid the need to learn how to write to a higher standard. This viewpoint criticises the practice of using proofreading services on the basis that students are awarded a grade higher than they could have obtained themselves – and so the practice is seen as unfair.
The scepticism here is caused by uncertainty as to what the term ‘proofreading’ actually means. We believe that those adopting the viewpoint outlined above have misunderstood what proofreading involves. The definition used by NCL Proofreading Services, which seems to be widely accepted across the UK, describes proofreading as altering the form and not the content – the language-aspect rather than the content-aspect – of a document. A clear distinction is made between alterations in spelling, grammar and punctuation (alterations which are acceptable) and alterations in the argumentation, the facts, and the ideas (alterations which are outside the proofreader’s remit). Proofreading deals only with the former – the linguistic issues – and has no responsibility with regard to the latter: a document’s knowledge claims or its substantive merit.
To recapitulate, proofreading services have no direct interaction with the content of students’ work. In practice this means that proofreading services do not make corrections by adding or deleting information deemed to have been carelessly handled – if they do, then they are doing more than simply proofreading. However, in real life, proofreaders encounter essays containing erroneous content and flawed argumentation – defects which are likely to cause the student to fail under assessment. So what proofreaders sometimes do is comment on aspects of a document’s content; they do not correct it, like they would a linguistic error, but they often query the problematic aspect by leaving a note on the document. This places the onus on the student to do something about it.
What has been said by way of a definition of the term ‘proofreading’ is relatively uncontroversial. The difficulty lies in defining precisely which alterations are form alterations and which are content alterations, because this is not always clear. This is a matter that NCL Proofreading Services takes very seriously. Our tendency is to err on the side of caution rather than impinge upon a student’s ability to authentically claim authorship of his academic work.