Unethical Editing Services at the Tertiary Level: Understanding Substantive Editing as Plagiarism

My previous blog referenced the Macquarie Dictionary’s definition of plagiarism:

Plagiarism (noun):

1. the appropriation or intimidation of another’s ideas and manner of expressing them, as in art, literature, etc., to be passed off as one’s own.

2. a piece of writing, music, art, etc., appropriated or commissioned from another and passed off as one’s own.

All accredited Australian universities codify this definition in their respective plagiarism policies, which also categorise the forms of plagiarism: copying, inappropriate paraphrasing, inappropriate citation, self-plagiarism and collusion. The last of these is of particular interest, as it encompasses two of the most common forms of plagiarism in present-day, tertiary-level education: ghostwriting (discussed in my previous blog) and substantive editing.

Substantive Editing as Plagiarism

The practice of editing in Australia is officially overseen by the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd). Per IPEd’s Australian Standards for Editing Practice (2013), there are three levels of editing:

  • Substantive editing (including, and sometimes called, structural editing) is assessing and shaping material to improve its organisation and content. It is editing to clarify meaning, improve flow and smooth language.
  • Copyediting is editing to ensure consistency, accuracy and completeness.
  • Proofreading is examining material after layout to correct errors in textual and visual elements.

IPEd (in collaboration with the Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies) further built upon these standards to develop the ‘Guidelines for Editing Research Theses’ (2013). All Australian universities have codified the Guidelines in their respective policies, and thus created a unified delineation (read limitation) of the services an editor may perform on postgraduate theses. Regarding postgraduate theses, the Guidelines stipulate that, ‘professional editorial intervention should be restricted to copyediting and proofreading’, thereby prohibiting the substantive editing of postgraduate theses by professional editors.

However, these Guidelines (a surprisingly progressive and unified policy for a country that has not even managed to standardise the application of daylight savings) are undermined by two factors: the essentially unregulated condition of the editing industry, and the increasingly sorry state of universities’ staffing arrangements and administrative and admissions policies. I will expand on both points.

The Lack of Regulation in the Editing Industry

Note my use of the term ‘professional editor’ above, when referring to the constituency over which IPEd presides—those individuals suitably qualified, trained, experienced and (crucially) accredited to provide editing services. However, the term ‘editor’ can be, and to the annoyance of professional editors is, applied to any individual who provides editing services. Indeed, the editing industry is awash with self-declared ‘editors’ possessed of no specific qualifications, training or experience.

This lack of a formal induction into the world of editing translates into ‘editors’ who, while perhaps skilled in the art of essay writing, lack the élan of true editors, including the requisite knowledge of editing ethics and interrelated university and academic policy. Consequently, uninitiated editors commonly engage in substantive editing of postgraduate theses, either ignorant or indifferent to their violation of university policy. The prevalence of such unethical editing practitioners, coupled with technological advances, means that substantive editing is widely available, easily accessible and, when considered against ever-rising university fees, relatively affordable.

Systemic Problems at the University Level

The second factor undermining the effectiveness of the ‘Guidelines for Editing Research Theses’, the state of universities, refers to the increasing rates of university students resorting to the purchase of ghostwriting and substantive editing services, the inadequate support offered by academics to postgraduate students (largely due to the unrealistic workload placed upon them by universities) and, most importantly, the overt commercialisation of Australian universities (the consequences of which manifest in a number of ways).

Universities’ Revenue Raising via International Student Enrolments

To assume that all students are aware of what constitutes plagiarism and their responsibilities as members (however junior) of academia is misguided. To assume that all students abide by university policy and academic guidelines is delusional. Estimations of plagiarism among students at Australian universities range from a modest (though still unsettling) 30% of students, to a staggering 80% of students. A majority of those students engaged in plagiarism by means of requisitioning substantive editing on theses are ESL students.

The commercialisation of Australian education and universities is a clear factor in this phenomenon; reductions in government funding of universities spurred institutions to drastically increase their enrolments, with particular emphasis on full-fee-paying international students. Consequently, Australia is now the world’s third-largest provider of education to international students (a A$20 billion industry). The dissonance (read conflict of interest) between universities’ financial motives and a commitment to academic integrity (not to mention the production of quality graduates and postgraduates) is easy to lay bare: on average, international students pay A$3,500 per subject, versus approximately A$1,000 per subject for domestic students (with fees comparatively higher for Go8 universities).

Business goes where the money is, and the little over 300,000 international students enrolled in tertiary education in Australia account for 25% of university enrolments and 17% of total university revenues. These are astounding figures considering that total student fee payments (international and domestic combined) account for only 21% of total university revenues!

Students’ Lack of the Requisite Language Skills for Academic Success at Australian Universities

The effect of this drastic increase in enrolment of international students is that significant numbers of enrolled ESL students do not possess the level of English language required for academia. Without sufficient language skills, these students tend to lack confidence in their own writing and struggle to express ideas in their own words (which precludes their ability to paraphrase, a basic and essential academic skill). They subsequently suffer high rates of failure.

The International English Language Testing System or Test of English as a Foreign Language (the standard tests utilised by universities to assess the English-language skills of prospective ESL students) have both been disputed based on their inaccuracy and lack of conclusiveness in assessing an individual’s ability, and some universities do not even require proof of English-language proficiency for ESL students to enrol. This is further compounded by ESL students typically receiving little to no support to improve their English-language skills once enrolled (barring additional courses undertaken on their own initiative and at their own expense).

Accordingly, supervisors of postgraduate ESL students will often recommend professional editing be performed on all submissions; academics themselves often have limited knowledge of the editing process and subsequently may have expectations that exceed the ethical boundaries of the service being provided. Academics and supervisors themselves are only partially to blame for an inability to provide students adequate support. Their own overloaded work schedules and expectations, which limit the time they have available to work with struggling students, are a systematic problem among universities that seek to minimise costs by placing increasing workloads on a decreasing number of academic staff.

The Increasing Demand for Substantive Editing Services

The pressure to perform (especially in recognition of the significant financial outlay made), a lack of adequate English-language skills to express ideas, and a lack of support from supervisors and academic staff all encourage ESL students’ use of editing services. While the contract of such services is not unethical if conducted in accordance with editing and university standards, the notoriously poor standard of ESL postgraduate theses often necessitates substantive editing, which alters content (ideas, information and/or arguments), and such heavy alteration of written work (often in an effort to improve language) that it amounts to rewriting. Substantive editing and rewriting both constitute plagiarism, violating university policy and editing guidelines.

Ultimately, while the lack of regulation in the editing industry (and unscrupulous, unaccredited editors) is the facilitator of academic misconduct via substantive editing (read plagiarism via collusion), the bulk of the blame can be laid at the door of increasingly commercialised Australian universities:

  • The rising cost of university study reinforces a consumer mentality among students concerned with what they see as an expensive investment.
  • The presumption that all tertiary-level students are aware of their responsibilities under university policy and possess the requisite academic skills creates a dangerous environment of ignorance (and is a convenient excuse for universities to forgo the costs of providing formal classes to facilitate academic skill development, or the funding of departments devoted to delivering academic assistance for those who require it).
  • The enrolment of (an inadequate support provided to) ESL students with insufficient English-language skills creates a desperate situation for students already under immense pressure to perform.
  • The increase in academics’ workloads (while simultaneously reducing staff numbers) results in overworked and cynical supervisors unable to provide their students with adequate support and eager to outsource what work they can to external providers.

Enter the unaccredited editor with no professional ethics or moral qualms over substantive editing.

Australian Universities at Real Risk

The long-term consequences of this current environment cannot be overstated: the majority of our exported graduates will be students with sub-par English-language skills, an inability to independently produce graduate-level work, and a crippling economic-cum-cynical perspective of Australian universities. The reduced quality of Australian university graduates will hardly go unnoticed, and the perception of Australian graduates and universities will suffer, translating into reduced enrolments, loss of public confidence and, ultimately, significant financial loss as domestic and international student enrolments dwindle. Urging universities to take steps to reduce the need for postgraduate students to resort to substantive editing is simply asking for universities to ensure adherence to their own policies, uphold academic integrity, ensure the true and accurate grading of students’ abilities and guarantee the quality of their graduates. I do hope that I’m not asking too much…

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