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we probably should be writing

  • Writer's pictureAmy McKernan

Editing with integrity in academia

As well as running The Methodology Section, I am an academic editor, so I regularly work with students and academics on a variety of written documents. As an academic editor, there are strict limits to my remit, and these limits vary for different kinds of texts. For thesis editing, I'm ethically restricted to copyediting, so I do no structural or major editing. In other kinds of publications, there can be opportunities for more significant editing, but there remains an important ethical line that I do not cross in my editing work. So what happens when a potential client asks you to cross an ethical line?

Some time ago, I was approached by a student wanting some editing done on a paper they had submitted to an academic journal. The paper was rejected, and the student was seeking an editor to help them improve the work with the hope that it would be published.

The way the request was framed waved a few red flags for me. Having a journal article copyedited prior to submission isn’t a problem. In fact, it can be a fantastic way to increase your chances of acceptance AND save time on the fiddly things you don’t want to be doing as a busy academic or student (like checking the referencing style, for example). What worried me was the sense that this student – who had sent through feedback from reviewers that stated a long list of required changes to the content – was asking for considerably more than copyediting, and in fact needed the article rewritten.

Substantive editing can also be fine in academia, but there is an important line that editors must not cross when it comes to research communication. If, for example, the issues with the paper were related to its structure—say the author had introduced important theoretical framing halfway through, and it needed to come earlier—this can be something for an academic editor to address. On the other hand, if the issue is that the central argument is weak or absent, this tends not to be something an editor can address ethically.

If an editor were to strengthen or introduce an argument, they would usually need to do further research. They would need to have a deep understanding of the research behind the paper, and (especially if the paper is weak) there’s no way an editor can have this knowledge. The kind of intellectual work the editor would need to do is likely to mean that, under academic authorship policies, they should be named as an author, and take on an author’s responsibility for the integrity of the paper. The original author, if they submitted the paper without including the editor as an author, would effectively be misleading the journal about whose work is included in the paper. This is a clear instance of academic misconduct.

While it might seem appealing to be named as an author, this is in fact quite risky for the editor. Not having been involved in the research as a scholar, and not necessarily knowing the details of the project and the field, the editor has no real way to know whether the study was carried out ethically and with integrity. If they are named as an author, they may be facing allegations of academic misconduct if the paper is published and it turns out data has been falsified, or the researcher acted unethically, or if findings have been misrepresented. An allegation of misconduct of any kind presents a huge reputational risk for any editor. If you’re an academic editor, or you want any work from universities, you do not want that reputational damage.

In my response to the student, I explained the scope of the academic editing I would offer, explicitly noting the limits of what I could do. I never heard from them again.

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