Are proofreading agencies filling the academic support gap missing from UK universities?


Claire Shaw is deputy editor of the Guardian Higher Education Network.  In an article in The Guardian (April 9, 1014) she writes about the issue of proofreading agencies and plagarism in higher education in the UK.  She notes that international students are paying for their work to be proofread, edited and, in some cases, written entirely, by professional writers and agencies.  This is raising concerns around issues of support in higher education institutions and of course, plagiarism.

Louise Harnby has been a professional proofreader since 2005.  She says that most students who ask her for a quotation are from outside the UK and English is not their first language. "Many of them simply don't have the access to sufficient language-support services at their university."

Harnby says she has noticed an increase in the number of foreign students seeking proofreading support in recent years.  This is not surprising considering the increase in the number of international students studying in the UK.

But can we class proofreading as cheating?  This is a topic that seems to divide academic opinion.  Is it acceptable or not for students to use proofreading services to help them with their work? Some academics say that using proofreading services is blatant cheating.  Others argue that it can help students with weak English language skills and dyslexia.

Harnby argues that most students are not trying to cheat but rather, are simply trying to do the best they can with the language skills they have.  Afterall, international students are under a lot of pressure to achieve because studying in the UK costs a lot of money and because they do not want to let down their parents.

Judy Carroll runs workshops on deterring students from plagiarism and teaching international students.  She says that using proofreading services is cheating, especially where students are not transparent about the work they submit for assessment.

For Carroll, cheating is where a student is seeking an unfair learning advantage. She says: "If a student is saying, 'Give me credit because I can write grammatically correct and error-free text', then the student is misleading the assessor and seeking an unfair learning benefit as it isn't their skills and their learning that is being judged."

But the real problem is - and the reason students are turning to proofreading agencies - that students not getting enough support at universities.  Carroll believes that is because many students have needs that far exceed the capabilities of universities.

It is not a surprise then to find proofreading agencies boasting of being able to improve student grades and offer students the academic support which they claim universities have failed to provide.  And most importantly, proofreading agencies also empathise with students - they express their understanding of the difficulties of studying for a degree in a foreign language.

One proofreading agency, states on its website: "If you do not get a significantly improved grade from our proofreading and editing work, we will give you a full refund."

Another agency, states: "Most students are being let down by their universities in providing them with adequate tutorial support [...]. This is where we step in!"

Others still, very openly state that they will write full essays for students. One agency even claims to provide "100% plagiarism-free papers" for those students who "have no time or inspiration".

But  of course this proofreading service is not free. It comes at a heavy price. Students are paying anything from £5.45 to £19.35 per 1,000 words but this also depends on the student's requirements.

So should universities create proofreading policies?

Some of the services offered by proofreading agencies far exceed what universities (and some proofreaders) would see as legitimate intervention in students' work. But in a free-market, free-market rules apply and these proofreading agencies can sell whatever is legally possible to sell. It is not illegal for proofreading agencies to be offering the services they do.  It is therefore up to universities to police any academic dishonesty.

Most universities have now designed policies on proofreading and copy-editing for students. Many are even forbidding the use of such agencies, or requiring students to be open about using them.  Nevertheless, it is still difficult to prove when students have used these services and there is also uncertainty about whether universities are willing to act.

Julia Molinari is an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) tutor and PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham.  She admits that there is very little academics can do about students using these proofreading services mainly because "plagiarism software can't detect a ghost text in so far as it is de facto original. It's a bit of a taboo topic, one we tend to gloss over and one that leaves a bitter aftertaste."

The director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, Alan Smithers, says: "I once had a PhD student whose thesis was so much better than her command of English led me to expect, but the university (not Buckingham) did not want to get involved in an investigation."

Smithers suggests that the use of proofreading agencies by undergraduates could be reduced if institutions switched back to actual examinations. He adds that as the reliance on coursework increases, so too will the reliance on external props - wherever students can find them.

Kim Shahabudin is a study adviser at the University of Reading.  She says that her university does not recommend professional proofreaders because intended meaning can be changed".

Shahabudin says: "We advise international students who are not confident about their academic writing to ask a fellow student, who is a native English speaker, to read through their work with them. This way they learn, self-correct and gain more confidence in their language skills."

After the scandal that erupted over the alleged plagiarism and extra assistance given to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi during his PhD at LSE in 2011, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) recommended that universities develop clear policies on what kind of academic help students were allowed to access.

Rob Behrens, the independent adjudicator of the OIA recommends that universities need to be rigorous in defining what is permitted.  What is permitted needs to be set out clearly.

"Buying essays and submitting them as one's own is regarded as academic misconduct. The OIA has reviewed a number of complaints involving both kinds of practice," says Behrens.

But where do students stand?

The use of external academic support services in the USA is more generally accepted. Students are however encouraged to disclose what they've had help with. Australia has gone one step further.  The Australian Standards for Editing Practice (Asep) have been embedded in universities' degree regulations.

But in the UK, not every university has established guidelines around proofreading and so students are not clear about what the rules are and whether proofreading is an acceptable level of support.

The OIA has no plans to establish guidelines in this area, so it's up to universities to clarify this matter.

Proofreader Louise Harnby says that she doesn't look over students' work without written consent from their supervisors.  But not all proofreaders do this.  Harnby says that she would like to see a more "unified policy throughout the UK so that both domestic and foreign students know exactly where they stand."

But there is no hard data so it's hard to say how many students use these services. One thing is clear however.  Not all students believe it's ethical.

Victoria Jayne Dovey is a creative writing student at the University of East Anglia.  Dovey says that she has noticed an increase in advertisements on social networking sites boasting copywriting services for students.  She says that she has never been tempted her to use them herself. "I have never been interested in such a thing despite numerous deadlines and final year stress as it would undermine my past four years of study", she says.

The bottom line is that international students bring in money - and lots of it - and there is no cap on the number of international students that UK universities can recruit.  So, the real question is how can universities continue recruiting large numbers of international students while maintaining professional integrity and standards and of course, providing academically sound degrees to the foreign students they recruit.

Tell us what you think.

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