Academic editing – some potential pitfalls

Since the demise of the small publishing houses that I used to work with, the majority of my editing work these days comes from students and academics. Many of these are people for whom English is their second language, but they write and potentially publish in English and therefore they need a native English eye looking over their work. Over the last few years I have copy-edited theses (PhDs, Masters and Bachelor degrees), articles, proposals, book chapters and many other bits of academic writing, and in the process I have learned a great deal about subject areas I would never otherwise have approached.

I have occasionally been asked how my involvement in a manuscript affects the ideas and arguments expressed within it. If I have effectively rewritten parts of a paper, as sometimes happens when the quality of the English is very patchy, are the resulting arguments mine, or the author’s? Does the integrity of the scholarship suffer?

I think part of the answer to this lies in my attitude towards the copy-editing process as a whole. With any edit, my aim is to remain invisible at the point of final completion. All the manuscripts I work on, and the original thoughts encapsulated within them, are the property of their authors; my role is simply cosmetic, correcting language where necessary, and my touch should be as light as possible. This is a skill that develops through long experience.

With academic writing in particular, however, when the written English is especially idiosyncratic it is often necessary to query sense and meaning, and I have sometimes needed to reword entire sections of text. In these cases, clearly the ultimate decision on my editorial changes resides with the author, but I am able to use my previous professional and academic experience to reconstruct the author’s language while retaining the foundations of their arguments.

This works both ways, though. If an argument is circular, poorly constructed or otherwise unsound, I can take no responsibility for improving it (although I would certainly raise a query with the author if I had real concerns). The scholarship is the author’s, not mine; they are the experts, and my job is to improve their language, not their intellectual property.

Only once have I been concerned about the academic integrity of a potential client. I received an email from a hotmail address, written in very poor English, asking whether I would be prepared to reword essays bought from the internet so that the individual could submit them as his own original work. Erm, no. No, that would be plagiarism, not to mention cheating and many other shades of wrong. On your way, sunshine.


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