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Editors Canada releases new guidelines for the ethical editing of students’ work

The guidelines require students to have a letter signed by their instructor indicating what kind of editing help is permitted.


While working as an editor for an online proofreading company in San Francisco, Nina Conrad became interested in researching the kinds of services postsecondary students receive outside the classroom to improve their writing. She enrolled in graduate school at the University of British Columbia in 2016 and wrote her master’s thesis on the topic, looking at students’ use of such services, whether paid or delivered by family or friends. Though most scholarship on this subject focuses on graduate students, her study showed that undergraduate students also seek third-party support, and that the kind of help students reported receiving sometimes violates university policies on academic integrity.

Ms. Conrad, now a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, concluded that, because students at all levels sometimes receive help with their writing, it deserves attention. She recommended universities “make very clear what is acceptable practice and what is not.”

Coming at this subject from the other side, Editors Canada has tried to clarify for their members how to provide editing services to students without interfering with their learning or violating university academic integrity policies. A professional organization of more than 1,300 English- and French-language editors, Editors Canada released guidelines in 2006 for the ethical editing of student theses and dissertations at the graduate level. But, as University Affairs reported in 2017 – and Ms. Conrad’s research showed – undergraduate students, too, seek editing services, and Editors Canada recognized that the increase in demand required a change to the guidelines.

“Our position on (editing undergraduate student work) had been ‘don’t do it, because we haven’t created any guidance,’” said Gael Spivak, president of Editors Canada. “But we knew that students were (hiring editors) anyway, so we needed to start including undergrads.”

In January, Editors Canada released its updated guidelines for the ethical editing of student work, which address editing written work at all levels of higher education. The guidelines are available as a free download on the Editors Canada website.

Mary Rykov, a writer and editor from Toronto, led the project and consulted with university administrators, instructors, writing centre professionals and editors. Dr. Rykov and her team also reviewed similar guidelines, specifically the ones from SENSE, the society of English-language professionals in the Netherlands, which includes editors and writing instructors.

Like the original guidelines from 2006, the new guidelines call for a letter of permission. An editor following these guidelines will require students to have the letter signed by their instructor before beginning to do any work. In the letter, the instructor indicates what kind of editing is permitted:

  1. flagging concerns but leaving the correction of problems to the student;
  2. correcting the errors; or
  3. a combination of both.

This allows flexibility for the guidelines to meet the learning objectives of different courses, departments and institutions.

“We’re very used to only doing the task that we are told to do. That’s part of our culture as editors,” Ms. Spivak said. “The professor is the person who tells the students what they can do and what the editor can do.”

One of the professors who consulted on the guidelines was Stephanie Bell, associate director of the writing centre at York University and an assistant professor in the professional writing program. She wanted to work on the guidelines, she said, because it was a way to bring her perspective as a writing scholar to conversations about what is appropriate when providing support to students.

Talking about editing can be a red flag for those who work at writing centres, Dr. Bell explained, “because writing centres are so often mistaken for editing centres or editing services, and that’s so distinctly not what we do. Our goal is to advance a writer, rather than to clean up their writing.” She said she’s glad to see the guidelines promote editing “in such a way that it moves a student forward in their learning.”

The challenge now for Editors Canada is to get the guidelines into the right hands. They’ve been distributed through Editors Canada’s network, as well as through the Canadian Writing Centres Association and in social media groups, where large communities of editors gather. One group on Facebook has more than 9,000 editors from around the world.

Some universities, like the graduate school at the University of British Columbia, endorsed the original Editors Canada guidelines, something Dr. Bell thinks all universities should do. “Ideally the guidelines would prompt a conversation among senate-level committees around what is OK and what is not” in terms of the types of assistance students can expect, she said.

She’s also curious about what the response will be from faculty members when students start bringing the permission forms to class. “I think these guidelines just might make the issue more prevalent and increase awareness among faculty of the need for writing support and writing instruction,” she said.

Dr. Bell said she believes students want to find legitimate resources to help them improve. “Most of them turn to illegitimate sources of support because they have no other option,” she said.

What’s more, helping students to become better writers will improve their understanding of their disciplines and “will enhance higher education, full stop,” she said. “Understanding how to write is understanding how to think.”

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  1. Dr. Ron Krate / March 6, 2019 at 14:38

    Glad to see they are going into this more thoroughly

  2. Nina Munteanu / March 9, 2019 at 11:11

    When creating guidelines—particularly when considering restrictions—I think it important to recognize and acknowledge the different teaching styles of instructors as well as how students learn (heuristic learning being a form of learning I believe is very effective here). I edit and coach professional writers and also serve as a writing instructor at several university writing centres. As writing instructor, I feel that it doesn’t matter whether I am correcting something small, like the use of commas, or something larger like paragraphing and narrative direction; what’s important is what the student learns in the process. I’m perfectly fine “editing” so long as by doing so, the student learns. If I’m not having a constant conversation with the student, I’m editing, not instructing. If I just flag concerns without guidance (by example), I am not teaching and the student is left to their own devices. For me, there is only the third option. Because, as Dr. Bell said: “Understanding how to write is understanding how to think.”

  3. Isabeau Iqbal / March 12, 2019 at 17:07

    Thank you for publishing this important piece. As an educational developer, I don’t face this situation directly but it (the challenges over editing or not) shows up in conversations I have when consulting with faculty members. Surprisingly, not as often as I would expect.

    Thanks to your article, I am now aware of the guidelines which are a resource I can share with my campus’ teaching and learning community.

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