All her own work?
January 19, 2009 6:20 PM   Subscribe

I seem to remember a question from someone who wanted to take a job writing essays for cash-rich brain-poor students, though I cannot find it, where many of the answers expressed concern at the dubious ethics involved. My question is, to what extent are proofreading/editing services for students of ethical concern? To what extent are they permitted by universities. Where is the line drawn?

I am currently helping to edit an essay for a friend of mine. She has had a desperate time lately (outside of university) and I am trying to help her not fall apart through getting thrown off her course. If what I am doing is unethical or breaches academic regulations, I am unrepentant, because my care for this friend outweighs these things, but still I am curious to know.

What I am doing is much more than proofreading. English is not her first language, and much of the essay has been written in a state of extreme anxiety. To be honest, at first glance a lot of it looked like pure gibberish, until I worked hard to decipher what she meant. I often work as a proofreader and editor, but I am doing more here than I would normally expect to, and rewriting substantial passages. Because of my work, she will certainly receive a far higher mark than if she had done it completely alone.

However, I have not introduced a single idea into the essay that was not hers. I have not even changed much in the way of technical language/jargon (the essay is for a social science). What I am mostly doing is fixing seriously flawed sentence construction and introducing some fluency to her arguments by adding linking sentences.

My question is, is this acceptable? The university she attends has a page on its website with a list of local proofreading services, so obviously it is acceptable to some extent. But what is that extent?

Does it make a difference that I am physically working on her essay with my own fingers inside a Word document? I wouldn't even consider this question if she were the one at the computer, with me elsewhere in the room, and she asked, "How would you put this?" But that distinction seems absurd. Similarly, if we discussed what she was doing over coffee, and I suggested ideas and approaches that she later used, I would consider that completely fair.

So what would generally be considered to be the ethical and academic guidelines for this kind of thing?
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My hunch is that what makes this "legal" is that you are not generating the ideas BEHIND what she writes, and therein is the difference. Ideally, a college essay is supposed to measure two things: a) whether a student can think critically about a concept and form an argument about it, and b) whether said student can communicate said idea to an audience. You're doing a hell of a lot of work, but your work concerns point B alone, still. The student was all on her own when it came to thinking up the idea and forming an argument, and it looks like that's where the school places its priority,'re good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:35 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

With regard to how much you can do in the situation of a typical university, I'd suggest reading the available documentation from the university's "writing lab" or similar, which will probably outline the services the school makes available to writers. You may do this type of service in good conscience, because the school would have no reasonable basis for allowing editing, but demanding you use an in-house editor, where competent outside editors are available. That said, the ESL issue complicates things quite a bit, and based on your description I'm inclined to think that "I am doing more here than I would normally expect to, and rewriting substantial passages" indicates a reasonable limit on what you can ethically do for your friend.

Does it make a difference that I am physically working on her essay with my own fingers inside a Word document?

Check the school's honor code, there may be some subtle phrasing in there that gives you a clue. Also, they should be a baseline anyway. I'm not big on HURF DURF ACADEMIC INTEGRITY ANONYMOUS TIP LINE but since you seem to a feel a bit uneasy about it I would place my level of concern about where yours is.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:36 PM on January 19, 2009

It sounds like an ethically dubious approach to a generally kosher task. I think of proofreading as being much more of a back-and-forth, never direct rewriting: you read through her document and mark (not change) passages you find unclear or grammatically incorrect, then give it back to her and discuss your proposed edits, then she does a rewrite and you do another read-through with comments, and so on.

I'm not saying you're wrong to help your friend, just that I don't think the university would consider what you're doing to be "proofreading." There is a big difference between sitting at your computer changing words in her document (while she is... where? away? doing something else?) and an interactive process consisting of your making comments and suggestions and her going in and changing her own document. In the latter case, you suggest and she chooses to make the changes. In what you're actually doing, you're making decisions for her. Again, not judging, just saying that I think that's a significant difference.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:36 PM on January 19, 2009

This has been a subject of discussion and debate re college admissions and applications. See Controversy Over College Application Essay Sites.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:56 PM on January 19, 2009

When I came to America, I started university pretty quickly . . . and I didn't speak English when I arrived, beyond some basic phrases and vocabulary. So you can imagine how tense it was to write essays in a new language, while I was still adjusting to life outside wartime, a new culture and a lot more. I had a professor at my school provide me with a great deal of assistance that sounds a lot like what the original post says he's doing. Do I see this now as unethical? No way. The bottom line is that she's in school to learn, and if what you're doing is really just helping her clarity and grasp of grammar, well . . . good for you. The distinction between ethical and unethical is in how she interacts with you during the process and whether you notice meaningful progress from paper to paper.

I doubt many people would have a problem with my English today, so from my school's point of view, how could they be upset at the results?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:04 PM on January 19, 2009

The MeTa post for the referenced Essay for Pay AskMe.
posted by zamboni at 7:06 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

You are on the line. Where that line is drawn depends on (a) the academic honor code or policy of the university, (b) the department's own guidelines, and (c) the individual instructor's expectations. I can imagine any one of the three likely containing some language that speaks to what you are doing, directly or indirectly. Technically speaking, what you are doing is much more than editing, you are rewriting, which is a task of authorship. It's not possible to say that you are only working with words and not ideas, because ideas are formed, in part, through the words chosen and not chosen. If your friend is unable to articulate an idea in her words, you are rebuilding the idea through your own. Technically, it's a collaboratively authored piece.

I'm typically on the other side of the seat from you or your friend, dealing with these situations from an an instructor or administrative point of view. I'm not saying any of the above as an indictment of your actions even though I would probably have to take action against your friend if this came in front of me at any of the institutions I've been associated with myself. The question I would ask you to think about is whether your friend is actually learning something from your involvement and whether you are setting her up for future failure by giving her the ability to pass an institutional barrier that she isn't otherwise able to pass on her own. If these aren't relevant or important to your friend, good luck, I've had enough troubles as a student to feel sympathetic. I chose to fail my classes though, which carried with it its own set of issues.

Oh, a word of advice though, if what you are doing *does* violate a policy and your friend is in a class where the professor is somewhat already familiar with her writing or her abilities as a student, it's going to be blatantly obvious that she didn't do the work herself. This happens a lot with desperate ESL students who are in over their head with respect to their command of written English for academic purposes.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:15 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

The honor code at the university I attended required me to pledge that, "I have neither given nor received aid on this test/exam/paper/etc." If I were her, I would not feel comfortable signing that, however, if the university links to proof reading sites and similar aids, I would say that as long as this is not an english paper or a paper that is test your friends knowledge of writing and understanding the english language, you are ok here. I would also add that the outside personal situation of your friend and her need for help does not alter the ethics of this situation. You would no sooner say it was ok to steal food because you spent your paycheck than you should violate university regulations because your frined is having a tough time.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:31 PM on January 19, 2009

mrmojoflying's advice made me think--I had been imagining a large, anonymous class, which would make your question philosophical rather than practical, but if your friend is in a situation where a prof could potentially compare your/her new writing to her own old writing, she would be much, much better off writing a first draft (however incoherent/incorrect) and taking it to her professor or TA for the class to ask for help.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:51 PM on January 19, 2009

I was more interested in the general guidelines for this kind of practice than whether I was doing the right thing. (As it happens, I am in no doubt that I am doing the right thing, in this case.)

But I'll make it clearer what level of help I am talking about. As I said, I've been inserting a few sentences that don't contribute any ideas but merely aid structure, and deleting some redundant ones, but it's mostly been tidying up the syntax. This is an example sentence, with my rewrite (I've glossed significant phrases). Around a third of her sentences needed this much work (of the remainder, some more, some less).


As the [big thingy] worked with [the small thingies] it was not a problem with [overall concept], It was also exemplified that if the [big thingy] was committed to [good idea] it couldn't be a [ususal method], it required [new idea].

My version:

Because the [big thingy] worked on behalf of [the small thingies], the problem of [overall concept] was not an issue. But the anticipated [essay subject] made clear that if the [big thingy] was committed to [good idea] for [these people] it could not be [via the usual method], but required [new idea].
posted by cincinnatus c at 8:10 PM on January 19, 2009

Proofreading / editing to me suggest finding errors to be corrected, not editing them out yourself. Given the sentences above, it would make total sense to mark the differences in red ink, and then let her decide to take them or not. Editing her thoughts into your own prose without her review seems like crossing a line to me.

A technicality? Yes. Either way, if you're worried, you should check against the school code and maybe talk to someone in the department. Also: is this being done last minute? (as in, are you writing this essay for her to turn in tomorrow?) My sense is that rewriting is usually where the writing actually happens -- and that if her paper reads as gibberish without heavy editing, there are probably more than syntax issues here. Even if you're just doing surface editing, you may be contributing more than you suspect.
posted by puckish at 8:33 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Okay, I'll take a shot. Our writing staff works with both English as a first language, and English as a second language graduate students. Based on my university's perspective, I think you're crossing a line. You aren't proof-reading. You're rewriting - you're crafting. They consider proofreading to be pretty narrow: catching those split infinitives and other grammatical mistakes, spelling mistakes, etc. In short, proofing the text for 'correctness'.

As for editing, particularly in the academic context, there are some who believe- and I agree - that the argument here is that the point is both the idea, and the ability to communicate that idea are important, and part of the student's development. So if you are editing - or rewriting - it isn't clear that you are engaging in learning moments with the individual you are helping - that is, explaining to the individual why the sentence is a run on, why the text is clearer as you've written it, etc., so it's unlikely that she is developing her communication skills. It's rare that I've seen individuals who receive such help in an English is a Second Language context revisit the text to understand or approve the improvements. So, the difference between your friend asking you questions about improvements and you writing it for her is that it completely removes her from the learning experience.

Lastly, it seems that often the issue rewriting is that in the end, the person 'proofing-rewriting' has to assume and develop some of the paper's idea. Because often the writer has not put down that idea, because they did not have the language capability to get the idea across. The 'proofer/rewriter' often doesn't check with the writer to see if that was there intent, and the writer doesn't go back in and correct it if it wasn't, because they lack the ability or confidence to do so. I think that's part of the slippery slope.

So in short, it's very likely that you are helping your friend, but less likely that you are helping her improve her English, or her writing abilities.

I hope your friend comes through her stressful situation okay.
posted by anitanita at 8:43 PM on January 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

A safe guidline is that ``red ink'' is never cheating for take home assignments. I can say from my own experiences learning another language that any tools making that language easier are potentially harmful. So I concur with anitanita overall.

Why not stick to handwritten corrections? So she must retype at minimum, plus presumably think logically about illegible handwriting.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:14 PM on January 19, 2009

DO not confuse doing the right thing by your friend with doing the right thing. In this case, helping your friend may be a priority, but your friend's situation does not change the ethics one way or another of what you are doing. I do not have enough information to opine on your decision, but it is certainly not a slam dunk as to whether you crossed the line academically helping your friend. And, I am not sure why you care if your issue is to help your friend in her time of need rather than help your friend get an A. You doth protest too much. I think you think you are crossing some line. You wouldn't ask otherwise. I hope everything works out for your friend and I hope she recognizes she has a great friend. I hope she does not get caught.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:25 PM on January 19, 2009

The guidelines at all universities with which I am familiar are that a student may not claim a substantial part of another person's work as their own. What is "a substantial part"? Broadly speaking, it could be either ideas or phrasing. Students don't generally steal ideas -- in fact, if they manage to recapitulate someone else's ideas well, that's a pretty good thing in most cases. Rather, students generally steal someone else's phrasing. In particular, taking even a full sentence from another person's work without attribution is usually counted as misconduct.

What you are doing would probably not be considered academic misconduct by most people working on misconduct committees, though it is still potentially objectionable (as anitanita nicely explained). The problem is that what you claim to be an absurd distinction is actually an important one:

Does it make a difference that I am physically working on her essay with my own fingers inside a Word document? I wouldn't even consider this question if she were the one at the computer, with me elsewhere in the room, and she asked, "How would you put this?" But that distinction seems absurd.

The difference between you showing her what corrections to make, and you making the corrections yourself, is very significant in terms of her retention of the corrected information. And since this research paper is presumably a kind of "practice run", not something that will be published, the only thing about it that matters is what she learns from doing it.

You say you would be helping her even if it were unethical: in response, I would advise you to reconsider whether you're actually helping her as best you could. You'll be a much better friend if you make corrections in red ink on a printed copy than if you keep doing what you have been.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:50 PM on January 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

if your friend is in a situation where a prof could potentially compare your/her new writing to her own old writing, she would be much, much better off writing a first draft (however incoherent/incorrect) and taking it to her professor or TA for the class to ask for help.

Agreed. And what's more, if you only edit the least clear sentences, so the final form goes from "unclear, unclear, very unclear" to "unclear, unclear, very clear" the person doing the marking might suspect the very clear sentences have been copy-and-pasted from the web or copied out of books or something.

That said, they might google the clear bits and see if they can find a source they were copied from, but if they can't they might let it go.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:46 AM on January 20, 2009

The ethical thing to do is to disclose the assistance to the professor. The key here is that English is not your friend's native language. Not every school has a policy on what you are doing. My graduate school had no policy in this area, and the school I teach at now leaves these decisions to me.

So your friend needs to e-mail the professor asap to explain the circumstances and that she's receiving proofreading help from a native speaker. She should also inform the professor that she will turn in both the essay she wrote and the one you rewrote. Even if the professor usually forbids what you're doing, I bet he'll cut your friend some slack due to her emergency. That's the best way for her to demonstrate good faith.

If the professor does not allow her to turn in the version you corrected, then tough luck. A bad grade or two is not the end of the world. She can ask for an extension and get university-sanctioned help.

My guess is that the professor will be relieved that you are correcting the poorly written English, all the more so if we're talking about a graduate student. My graduate advisors would not accept papers from ESL students until they were proofread, and I won't either.

If your friend were a native English speaker, then what you're doing crosses a line. Problems writing papers are between the student, the professor, and the school's writing center.

In the future, your friend needs to find an on-campus solution to her writing problems, in consultation with the appropriate office. College resources in this area are often inadequate, in which case she needs to enroll in formal ESL writing classes somewhere else. Apparently she chose to attend college at an English speaking school, meaning that she needs to learn to write in English. You're not doing her any favors in the long run, although you sound like a great friend for helping out in a bind.
posted by vincele at 2:58 AM on January 20, 2009

I worked for a writing center at a small liberal arts college for 3 years. Our policy was always that our interactions with a client had to be just that, interactions. Things were changed in the essays by the client, and not by the writing center staff. This was easy when it came to big-picture things, like move this idea over here, expand on this paragraph and break it into two separate paragraphs, etc. It got tougher when working on sentence-level issues like word choice and grammar. I worked with a number of ESL students on a weekly basis, and when we tackled the smaller things that tended to be tougher for non-native speakers, it became closer to my pointing out problems and suggesting solutions, but I would still try to explain different phrasing options and explain why they were better alternatives. All of this complied with our university's honor code. What we could never do was allow a student to drop off their paper, leave, and come back for something that was marked up.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:40 AM on January 20, 2009

I'm sorry, I don't think you want to hear this, but as a current undergrad, I firmly believe I would be hauled up and in serious trouble if I did what you two are doing.

For example, my university's academic misconduct policy includes the following: "Material that is to be assessed (whether formatively or summatively) must be an accurate reflection of the work of the student whose name appears on the material." You may only be clarifying her ideas, and not introducing anything new, but you are still, in my opinion, giving an inaccurate representation of her skills. You said yourself that she will a much better mark through your help. It also says that "it is important that all students are judged on their ability, and that no student is allowed to gain an advantage unfairly over others." While that is not your intention, I personally feel that you are giving her an unfair advantage.

You are being very kind to spend so much time helping her, and I'm sure she appreciates your efforts. At the end of the day, though, I know you think you are helping her, but it really wouldn't do her any favours to be hauled up on charges of academic misconduct. This is something that most universities take very seriously and it can in some cases result in expulsion. Even if the consequences are not that dire, misconduct charges would surely cause her much humiliation and stress and I don't think you want that for her.

My opinion is that she needs to discuss the matter thoroughly with a member of staff, preferably ending up with clear written guidelines. There may be different rules for ESL students, but you ultimately need to find out exactly what the rules are. I realise that you are not overly concerned whether or not you are acting improperly, and just want to help your friend, but as her friend the kindest thing to do is to make sure she doesn't suffer because of your help. Once you've found out her university's rules, you can still help her, but you really do need to do that in a permissible way - for her sake.

(Also, you didn't ask this, but Student Services are often very helpful in arranging extensions and extra help. Your friend is not the first student to have trouble with her work and with her personal life; there are policies in place to help in such circumstances and she should make the best of them. A close friend of mine, for example, recently went to pieces after a death in her family and didn't do any work for weeks; Student Services have been fantastic and fallen over themselves negotiating with tutors and arranging very generous extensions for her. I strongly urge you to encourage your friend to seek their support; I am sure she will be pleasantly surprised.)
posted by badmoonrising at 8:37 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

badmoonrising is absolutely right. I answered the question from the perspective of a professor thinking about foreign graduate students, but you really should not be intervening in this situation.

As long as your friend is thinking clearly enough to arrange for you to rewrite her paper, or to accept your services, she's well enough to contact the appropriate campus office for assistance. Student Services will communicate her needs to her professor(s).

Do not contact the professor or university on her behalf. They will, and should, refuse to talk to you about her because it violates confidentiality policies universities and professors must follow for legal reasons.

Thus care for this friend means urging her to use campus resources rather than swooping in to save the day by rewriting her paper. Rewriting may feel noble, but as long as your friend conceals her writing defiencies, she'll find herself in this situation everytime she has to write a paper, crisis or not.
posted by vincele at 9:24 AM on January 20, 2009

badmoonrising and vincele are both quite right - Student services can offer confidential, useful support - and she's already PAID for the support they offer. If your friend is struggling, she needs all the help she can get, and if she's international, she may not be aware of just what type of support US universities and colleges offer student under duress.

I hope you'll encourage her, go with her, or even go in yourself to the dean's office, or advisor, or international students office, or health services, just to ask what kind of support they could offer if a friend of yours was experiencing difficulties. (You don't have to mention her name or about your writing assistance - just say that your friend is going through a difficult time and you'd like to know what type of support you can encourage her to access - including writing assistance).

Best of luck!
posted by anitanita at 4:07 PM on January 20, 2009

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