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In my opinion

Dog-ate-my-homework syndrome and other tales from an academic editor

Within academia, the professional editor is considered to be an outside, unknown and potentially dangerous entity.


Each semester as assignment deadlines near, dog-ate-my-homework syndrome appears in my inbox (typically around 3:00 a.m.) from undergraduates requesting editorial assistance with laughably unrealistic turnarounds. Most students mean well but are still learning time-management skills. Others are too overwhelmed, afraid or shy to ask their professor for help. A few bad apples deliberately cheat – like the undergraduate who wants me to edit a literature review assignment behind her professor’s back. No, I will not.

Even while still an undergraduate in the 1980s, I served as my friend’s doctoral thesis faery. My professional editing role didn’t begin until 2010 with coursework from Ryerson University’s publishing program, which organized my approach and enabled me to edit beyond my own opinions. I define a professional editor as one who belongs to a skills-based editorial association, such as Editors Canada, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the U.K., the Institute of Professional Editors in Australia and New Zealand, and ACES: the Society for Editing in the U.S.

Academic editors share the same skills as scholarly and reference editors, but we edit student texts that are written, in part, to fulfill a graded or ungraded academic requirement. I confess that my own rushed and sloppy PhD writing – in dire need of professional editing – did not do justice to the sound research it reported. Although I revised the writing for subsequent journal publications, my original flawed doctoral document partially informs my current academic editing practice by enabling me to advise from experience about what not to do.

Reaction from the academy to me as a professional editor has been mixed. As much as I commend the University of Victoria’s academic integrity policy, which includes editing of undergraduates’ work without faculty approval as plagiarism, I fear that professional editing seems to equal infringement. Perplexed, I reached out to a university writing centre employee to find out why. I learned that the professional editor is considered to be an outside, unknown and potentially dangerous entity. We are perceived as predatory and conflated with essay mills. These contentions are as enlightening as they are disturbing and erroneous because I, a lifelong learner and independent scholar, would never condone violation of academic integrity.

The Ethical Guidelines for Editing Theses and Dissertations, written by Editors Canada member Lee d’Anjou and her committee in 2005, was informed by research with 12 postsecondary institutions in Ontario and British Columbia. I led the 2019 revision team, which also entailed research with university professors and writing centres. These current guideline revisions didn’t re-invent the 2005 wheel; rather, we retrofitted the original permissions, concisely aligning them with the 2016 Professional Editorial Standards update. Most significant is the inclusion of stringent permission guidelines for editing undergraduate student texts.

Lee d’Anjou’s 2005 remark – “What really surprised me was the great variation from school to school” – still resonates today. Because standards vary considerably across universities, disciplines, departments and faculty, the professional editor seeks clarity from supervisors for the editing tasks allowed. For the record, I have never edited an undergraduate’s text because 1) their assignment deadline is too soon for me to help, as stated above; and/or 2) I don’t hear from them after I request their professor’s permission to edit. Rather than paying a professional editor, I tell students to consult their professors and writing centres. Most of my clients, primarily doctoral candidates, seek my services because their supervisor says they must use an editor.

Universities that perceive professional editors as a moral threat to academic integrity must face their own ethical shortcomings that play out as a generalized lack of writing support, particularly for those students who aren’t native English speakers, who learn differently, and whose prior learning and worldviews might be better expressed beyond the narrow confines of academic writing. I share the following observations from my experience:

  • Some of your undergraduates, who enter university with poor writing skills, graduate without appreciably improving these skills.
  • You tell some graduate students to hire editors at their own expense because their learning needs exceed what you and your overwhelmed writing centres can provide.
  • Some students, even doctoral candidates, don’t know how to cite or what constitutes plagiarism, which varies cross-culturally.
  • International students, who enrich academe with their global perspectives, pay exorbitant tuition fees that don’t buy them the supports they need to succeed in an English-language learning environment.
  • A supervisor permits deep stylistic edits to an ESL master’s thesis beyond what is allowed in another faculty at the same university or in a similar faculty at another university.
  • A supervisor instructs, “write in the active voice,” but her doctoral candidate is too ashamed to admit ignorance and ask what this means, or why and how to do so. Similarly, “put this in a table” baffles.

Most graduate students – and all undergraduates – would benefit from a required writing and study skills course, graded or ungraded, taught by faculty and TAs who can nourish these skills. The dog-ate-my-homework time of the semester is now upon us. How will you help your students?

Mary Rykov, PhD, is a writer and Editors Canada member who led the revision team that produced Guidelines for Ethical Editing of Student Texts. Her poetry collection, some conditions apply, launches May 2020 with Inanna Publications. 

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  1. withheld by request / November 28, 2019 at 07:59

    Some institutions (if not most) purposely do not support students because doing so would be admitting that the students need support. “We only admit superior students,” they say. “Our students need no formal instruction in the basics of grammar and sentence structure.” For these universities, offering a writing class outside of a writing program is akin to admiting that their students are imperfect, in need of support beyond the writing centre’s handouts on subject–verb agreement. These are the flavour of responses I’ve received when asking universities why there is no grammar course I can point students to whose language skills are so weak as to make even grammar software wave a white flag.