• Christopher Marcatili

Can A PhD Student Get Their Thesis Professionally Edited?

When I tell people that the majority of my clients are PhD students, the most common question I get asked is whether students are actually allowed to use an academic editor. Aren’t PhD students supposed to tough it out alone? Shouldn’t their supervisor be editing their thesis? Wouldn’t having their writing edited mean they breach their declaration of authorship?

The short answer is: a PhD student can and probably should get their work edited by a professional academic editor. But, as with most things, it does get a little complicated when you look into it. In this post we look at some of the assumptions that might stop a student from getting their thesis edited.

Don’t PhD students work alone?

One of the most pernicious myths about writing a thesis is that students have to go it alone.

Completing a PhD is challenging. Research has shown that mental health difficulties are more prevalent in students completing their PhD than in other similar cohorts and studies have suggested as many as 50% of students experience psychiatric distress.

Unfortunately, part of the picture is that students often feel unsupported. Many university departments do a poor job of encouraging collaboration and mutual support between staff and students working on their theses. The support a student receives usually relies on the specific relationship between the student and their supervisor which, as anyone who has spoken to a few PhD students will know, can vary widely.

This notion that students have to go it alone can be damaging, and collegiate support from faculty staff and fellow students would go a long way to reducing anxiety and stress.

Will getting a professional editor solve this problem? No, of course not. But it’s important that PhD students know what professional services are available to them so that if they feel like they need it, they can reach out for support.

Shouldn’t the supervisor be editing a student’s thesis?

The short answer to this question is yes. Part of the supervisor’s role is to help the student keep the thesis on track, and that includes reading and giving feedback on drafts of the thesis. In an ideal student–supervisor relationship, this feedback is constructive, timely and supportive.

In the early stages, the most important feedback a supervisor can offer is structural; how might the student improve the overall argument, what might they include or remove to improve the flow of ideas? A professional editor should not be required for this kind of feedback and, as we’ll discuss below, getting a professional editor for structural feedback might be a problem.

The problem is that supervisors vary. Some find it difficult to prioritise their PhD students, others lack the skills needed to be an effective support for students working with them. Even the best supervisors may only provide general feedback, rather than worry too much about the details.

Ultimately, it’s the supervisor’s job to give feedback on the structure of the thesis. It’s unlikely they will provide feedback on every paragraph and sentence of a thesis. This is where a professional editor can be useful.

Doesn’t getting someone else to edit the thesis breach the declaration of authorship?

It shouldn’t, but it does depend. This is perhaps the most complex issue.

It is essential that PhD candidates are rigorous when it comes to making sure the research is entirely their own. A successful PhD thesis must be an original contribution of research to a specific field. This means all quotations need to be properly cited, even if they’re paraphrased, to avoid even a whiff of plagiarism.

Most universities will have different policies on when a professional editor can be used and how to ensure the service doesn’t breach a statement of originality. For example, this University of Sydney policy states students are allowed to get a professional editor, so long as they’ve discussed it with their supervisor first.

Practical considerations for using an editor 

To avoid issues of plagiarism or a breach of the declaration of authorship, there’s some practical things to be aware of when using a professional academic editor.

First, the final say over exactly what is in a thesis is up to the student. Any changes made by an editor should be as comments or track changes, and the student must decide what they will or won’t accept (which is why it’s important to leave enough time at the end of the process to review all changes, instead of just accepting them all).

Second, a professional editor should always be included in the Acknowledgments. This isn’t just a professional courtesy (although it is that). The Acknowledgments are, in part, a place for a student to make nice comments about the support they got from their family or their supervisor. But they’re also a place to make clear how others who aren’t listed as the author contributed to the thesis, for instance, by providing financial support. Like citing a reference properly, acknowledging professional services like copy editors and proofreaders, or even just friends who have provided feedback, is an important part of making the authorship of the thesis transparent.

Third, review the university’s policies on submitting a doctoral thesis and share them with the editor. Sometimes they outline specific style and formatting requirements that the editor needs to be aware of but, more importantly, they also provide very clear instruction on what is and isn’t allowed. For example, that point above about structural editing: Most universities will stipulate that a student cannot get structural editing done by a professional editor. This feedback should be provided by a supervisor. Why? In part, because a student shouldn’t have to pay for a service their supervisor should be giving. But also because the relationship between a supervisor and a student is much better at guiding a student to develop their own ideas and arguments. An editor should review the guidelines in full before they start editing a thesis so they know exactly what’s expected of them.

Is it a problem if an editor re-writes an entire sentence or large parts of a paragraph? 

Usually, an editor will make small and uncontentious changes while editing, like fixing grammatical errors. Sometimes they will make larger changes, too, like re-writing sentences or restructuring paragraphs. Is this a problem?

The changes made by editors could be described as falling into two broad categories: fixing errors and suggesting improvements. An academic editor has the responsibility to take a professional approach to their work and, in Australia, this usually means being familiar with the Institute of Professional Editors’ standards for editing practice. Part of the professional standards is knowing how to communicate and negotiate changes with the client which, in the case of editing PhD theses, is usually the author. So how should an editor discuss and negotiate changes like large re-writes?

One approach editors sometimes take—myself included—is to make larger changes in comments rather than as track changes. Why? Track changes are often read as being necessary fixes and can be so easily accepted without the author reflecting on why a change is being made. By putting the re-write in a comment, it puts the requirement on the student to decide whether to simply copy my suggestion entirely, tweak it and make it their own, or to completely ignore it. The comment also gives the opportunity to explain why a larger change is necessary, for example, because the sentence structure is unclear, full of repetition, or is incomplete.

If the author is unclear on why a change is being made, they’re entirely justified in asking their editor. Again, it’s part of the professional standards that an editor can explain and discuss the changes they put forward. Once the student knows the reason a change was made, it’s ultimately their responsibility to accept it or not.

This gives authorial ownership to the student so they can be confident in submitting their work.

Next we outline five good reasons a PhD student should consider getting their thesis edited.

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