Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Is Professional Editing Plagiarism?

Image by Stuart Miles at
Is professional editing plagiarism? Many colleges and universities think so. After all, if learning to write better is part of the academic goal, isn't paying someone to fix your writing cheating?

Clearly, if the university says professional editing is against the rules, then it's against the rules. According to the University of Puget Sound, "allowing others to manipulate your words and sentences to the point that they are obviously not your own is a form of plagiarism."

What institutions suggest is that students have someone point out writing problems and then attempt to correct these problems themselves. But I don't think I'd offer value for money if I returned an essay that merely showed sentence after sentence highlighted with a list of grammar terms that my client didn't understand.

I'd argue that these rules privilege those of us who arrive at university with a good writing background and fluent in English. It's just unfair. I argue that professional editing is part of the learning process, not an attempt to plagiarize.

I'm a high school teacher, and by law, I'm only allowed to mark students on the established curriculum. So, I can't take marks off for students who come late, hand in work late, have a bad attitude, etc. Then suddenly at university, students are losing marks in sociological theory, nursing practice, or psychology because they make errors of capitalization, comma usage, and syntax. Or worse, they are charged with plagiarism when after all their careful research and original writing, they hire a professional editor to polish the essay.

There's no doubt that these are essential skills to master to be a competent professional in your chosen field. But I'd classify these as part of the "soft" skills that make a big difference in your professional success, like how you dress, comport yourself, and speak. They are not part of the core skills on which the university should be marking you in the course. Further, although a few students may be going on to academic careers, the majority are going to go into the working world and practice a profession. And in the real world, it's not considered cheating to hire an editor. In fact, the more advanced the writer, the more likely he or she is to work with an editor!

I use "track changes" in my editing, and I've seen students grow in their writing over several years as they use my professional editing service to polish their university writing. I can't imagine how some of these students would have managed to progress through their education without my help.
I had one client working on a Master's degree in Nursing whom I suspect had a learning disability. As a learning support specialist, I see students like this in high school—otherwise, intelligent students for whom writing is an extreme challenge. Add the use of English as a second language, and the writing can be almost unintelligible at times. But this student knew her nursing. She never misspelled the names of drugs, body parts, or scientific theories. She understood the core curricular material clearly. Over time, I watched her writing improve. She never mastered strong writing skills, but she was undoubtedly paying attention to my edits and learning from them.

I believe that only highlighting errors without correcting them is not sufficient for struggling students. That's why many grammar correction programs are not useful. When I see a run-on sentence with some word errors, comma errors, and capitalization errors mixed in, is it helpful to just name the mistakes? I think students need to see correct sentences to learn to write correctly.

Many of my clients are the first in their families to go to college. Many do not speak standard English at home, or they use another language altogether. Insisting that students produce polished, grammatically correct essays when they are struggling to read the texts as well as do academic research with critical thinking is unfair. For students who attended a top high school with advanced English classes, this is an easy first step to college writing. But my high school has many struggling students. The grade 12 English teachers are struggling to help the majority of students meet the minimum criteria for graduation; they don't have enough time to coach the college-bound students in the finer points of writing.

For students of color in the United States, calling professional editing plagiarism is nothing less than institutional racism. It privileges those students whose parents were college educated and who attended better high schools. My clients include university professors who use English as a second language. Are their professional publications "plagiarized" because they have an editor?

Worst of all, many university and college professors continue to enforce "zombie" grammar rules such as not splitting an infinitive or not ending a sentence in a preposition, which are seen by grammarians as arbitrary and not part of the natural grammar of English. My editing practice is to ensure students avoid these grammar errors just in case the professor believes in these outmoded ideas of grammar.

I'm going to continue to assist students at all levels to hand in grammatically correct essays because I believe professional editing is not plagiarism. In a world where students can purchase custom-written essays easily, I support those who have done the hard work of research and writing but need additional help to hand in an essay that meets all academic writing requirements for grammar and format.