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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Marcatili

What can’t an academic editor do? The limits of academic honesty.

A year or two ago, we asked the question: ‘Can a PhD student get their thesis professionally edited?’ Spoiler alert: the answer is yes, they can and probably should get their thesis edited before they submit it to their marking panel. The last thing any student wants after agonising for years over their thesis is for poorly structured sentences or typos to distract from the research.

But what are the limits on academic editing? How far can a PhD candidate and editor go before they walk into the murky ground of academic dishonesty? We were asked this question recently by a PhD student. As we discussed in our previous post, there are some practical things to keep in mind when using an editor: final say over the content of the thesis belongs to the author, professional editors must be acknowledged for their work, and make sure you read and adhere to the university policies on hiring a professional editor.

A good test for honesty is discussing what you are doing, or what you are planning to do, with your supervisors. If they are comfortable with your intentions, then it’s probably all right. If you’re uncomfortable telling them, it’s probably a sign that you’re veering into the territory of academic dishonesty.

Let’s elaborate on some specific things you cannot ask an editor to do. They cannot help you with your research. They cannot ghost write sections of text, or re-word a quote into original phrasing for you. And generally, they probably should not be providing structural editing on your thesis (though this may depend on circumstances).

Research assistance

Researching for a thesis is long, arduous work. Sifting through the hundreds of articles, books, chapters, reports, and websites one might find on any given topic and unearthing the thread of good quality, relevant research is hard going. Not everything that’s found will make it in the final cut, and not everything that’s included is necessarily the ‘best’ that’s out there.

The process of discovering, reviewing, annotating, processing and engaging with the literature is the hard work of research. It takes up much of the many years spent on a thesis, and can often continue even into the writing process.

Requesting help from an editor to do things like keep track of your references, or find references that support an argument, is essentially research assistance and falls well outside the appropriate work of an editor. The author is responsible for making sure there are relevant references in the text, and that they are allocated correctly. An editor may highlight a reference they think might be incorrect, but they should only raise this as a question.

What about helping you find missing details in your reference list, or identifying unsupported claims?

If an editor is providing structural or copy editing, they may notice a claim that is unsupported by evidence. This claim might be something the author is asserting based on their own research, it might be an opinion that is not supported by evidence, or it might be a claim made by other researchers but not properly attributed. In short, it’s unclear precisely what’s being said and why. It therefore falls within the realm of something an editor can and should comment on. The comment might just point out that the statement needs to be supported, or that it should be clearer whether it’s a statement of opinion or a result of research. If it’s not an original idea, it may need a reference and it is the role of the author to insert an appropriate reference.

When it comes to changes to references, editors may alter references to ensure they fit specific referencing style requirements. If entries in the reference list are missing details, like page numbers of a book chapter, the name of the publisher, or the year of publication, editors should point out these gaps as a comment. It is not their responsibility to fill or correct information in the reference – this responsibility falls with the author.

Ghost writing

Some people struggle to find the right words, or they lean on the same repetitive phrasing. This is common, and it’s also a good reason for hiring a copy editor. When an editor comes across this kind of issue, they will often take one of two approaches. They might rewrite the sentence for you. This is more common if the change is relatively minor, or if they are just rearranging the words that are already there to improve clarity.

If a substantial change is required, they are more likely to comment on a sentence or passage and identify the issues that need to be addressed. They might even give you an example of a sentence that has addressed these issues. It’s important to remember that these changes should be read as suggestions, and it’s the author’s ultimate responsibility to make decisions about the final phrasing.

When does it go too far? If an editor is making significant changes to whole sentences and paragraphs, that’s probably a sign things have gone too far. The author must be able to identify honestly and clearly their own writing and says they wrote it themselves.

Ghost writing is when someone writes as though they are someone else, without being attributed. Ghost writing is a clear breach of academic honesty; the person whose name is on the thesis gets the degree and must have written the thesis themselves. But a ghost writer needn’t write the whole thesis for a problem to arise. Asking an editor to paraphrase a large quote into an original paragraph, providing a list of dot points and asking them to produce a well-flowing argument, asking them to read original source material and summarise key points – all of this would constitute ghost writing and all of it would be a clear breach of academic honesty.

Structural editing

As we have said elsewhere, this one is a bit dependent on the circumstances of the author. Structural editing is when someone provides advice on the broader structure of your thesis, chapter, or section. It often has to do with the strength of an argument, the logical flow of ideas, or making sure the whole piece reads clearly and smoothly.

Many editors provide structural editing as a service, including Ellipsis Editing. But some university policies on academic editing specifically state that PhD students should not get structural editing from an academic editor. Why?

Firstly, it’s the job of the supervisor/s to provide structural editing. Why should a student have to pay for something they are supposed to be getting already?

But more importantly, providing structural advice in a way that is nuanced, balanced, and not in breach of academic honesty, requires time and experience. PhD students should be sending parts of their thesis to their supervisor for comments, and supervisors should understand how to guide a student to developing their own ideas and arguments over time and through research in a way that does not lead into academic dishonesty. It’s a process that allows for much more nuance and care. Changing an entire argument on advice from an editor is much riskier.

Editors generally also lack the subject matter expertise in the research area. If they offer an opinion about the content, or a gap in an argument, it might be worth considering, but it should not be read as an opinion informed by deep and sustained research.

What if you legitimately need additional support?

A general caveat to all of the above is that in some circumstances, PhD candidates may request special support or consideration in completing their thesis. This may be the case, for example, if students have specific accessibility needs. One client of ours suffered considerable health issues while writing their thesis, which made the act of writing at a keyboard incredibly difficult and slow. With university permission, they were granted access to a notetaker to help them type out their ideas.

If a student has specific considerations or need for support, the first step is to discuss it with supervisors and potentially with the relevant departmental or faculty team. If permission is granted to receive additional supports, make sure to always remain within the limits of that permission. The last thing an author would want, after spending years working on their writing and research, is to have their whole project called into question because they blurred the lines between original research and academic dishonesty.


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