To edit, or not to edit? That is the question… (Dan Bendrups)

Image by Tseen Khoo
In my work in the RED Unit at La Trobe University, graduate researchers and their supervisors approach me with all sorts of questions about graduate research candidature.

Recently, I’ve been fielding various questions about thesis editing.

On the one hand, this is a really good sign - a number of our candidates must be nearing completion.

On the other hand, these can be tricky questions to answer.

They can generate even more questions: How much should a supervisor contribute to the editing of a PhD? Is it acceptable for a candidate to pay an editor to help them? Where do you even find an editor?

One candidate wondered whether the university might have editors on staff. Another wanted to know how much they should expect their supervisor to help correct their grammar.

The answers to these sorts of questions can reflect a range of different factors.

First, there’s the assortment of traditions and personal experience that we might call disciplinary convention. Some supervisors decry any external editorial input, expecting their candidates to take responsibility for every single word. Others take a more laissez-faire approach. Some research teams operate with budget for editorial support, while some departments would struggle to employ a single proofreader.

Second, there’s supervisor input. Timely, appropriate feedback is one of the most important aspects of the graduate research experience. Yet some supervisors sometimes offer only cursory comments, while others make detailed corrections to the point of changing the writing completely (which can itself raise ethical issues).

Neither of these approaches is correct all of the time, but supervisors are sometimes conflicted about how much correction to do, and there is little to guide candidates about how much to expect. In these circumstances, the best thing you can do is to have a really honest conversation with supervisors about the feedback you are receiving and why it is a concern for you.

Third, there’s academic integrity. In a contemporary environment in which plagiarism and contract cheating are major issues, student work is now subject to greater scrutiny than ever before, and this extends to the doctoral level. Graduate researchers and supervisors alike need to be sure that any editing that happens is within the bounds of what is considered appropriate. The good news is that the Institute of Professional Editors (IPED) has really clear guidelines for this.

Finally, there’s university policy (which should really be the first point of reference!). Most universities have some sort of policy around the editing of graduate researcher theses.

At La Trobe, this is encompassed within the broader Examinations Procedure (Part E). Generally, such policies acknowledge that professional editing is a normal part of contemporary professional writing, within limits that apply to graduate research theses.

So, what advice might I give to a candidate considering editorial help?
  • Get to know your university’s policy regarding editorial input, and talk to your supervisors about what you want to do, to ensure that it’s consistent with disciplinary expectations.
  • Get professional advice. Check the Australian Standards  for what an editor can do, and review the IPED network of accredited editors (they have a great online tool for locating editors all around Australia).
  • Consider the financial implications. Is this something you are willing to pay for out of pocket? Does your discipline consider editorial support to be an extravagance, or business as usual? Do you have university funds that you can access as a graduate researcher that might offset the costs involved?
  • Be realistic about timeframes. Editing takes time and should be considered among other tasks in your timeline to submission.
It's important to reflect on why you're considering editorial support in the first place.

Editors shouldn’t be engaged to address a writing deficit, compensate for inadequate supervisory input, or take care of revising the thesis because you have better things to do with your time.

An editor can provide really useful assistance, as well as an objective set of eyes to improve your work, but your writing shouldn’t be outsourced. It’s your thesis, your chance to demonstrate excellence in the communication of research and hone writing skills that will carry through into your future career.


Dr Dan Bendrups is based on the La Trobe Bendigo campus. 

Dan has a multidisciplinary background in Arts and Humanities with a particular focus on the role of music in expressing and sustaining cultural heritage in Indigenous and migrant communities. 

He has produced over 50 publications concerning music and heritage in Australia, Latin America and the Pacific, as well as performance research theory and practice. 

Dan has a strong record in graduate researcher development and training across five institutions in Australia and New Zealand, and has previously received commendations for supervision at both the University of Otago and Griffith University.