Developing an effective and equitable proofreading policy for UCL student work

Abstract

Writing almost always involves people (and now perhaps AI chatbots) other than the author. In contexts outside education, this is in plain sight, with editors, proofreaders, translators, colleagues’ opinions and co-authored work a norm. However, because student writing is assessed, the involvement of others is more contentious and less visible, although it is nonetheless commonplace. This raises issues of academic integrity, equity and access. The ambiguities around third-party proofreading have led to academic misconduct cases, but also to missed opportunities for setting up our students with good writing practices for their future professional lives.

Students writing outside. Charlotte May via Pexels
Students writing together. Charlotte May via Pexels

In this blog post I report on the results of focus groups with UCL staff and students to help explore and shape norms appropriate for UCL, including on acceptable boundaries for third-party proofreading, and on the factors that should be considered in developing an institutional policy on proofreading. I align staff and students’ contributions with the model of Universal Design in Higher Education to guide policy design.  I found a high level of acceptance of third-party proofreading, provided that it contributed to student learning. I make some suggestions for embedding proofreading practices into our teaching, such as peer proofreading, to help students understand acceptable boundaries and learn these essential skills.

Introduction

The question of how much outside help is permissible in student work is currently a matter of intense debate in the context of generative AI, but this question is not new. Concerns that students are relying on outside help for their writing by using proofreaders have been voiced regularly in the press and in policy since the expansion and internationalisation of higher education.

What is proofreading?

Proofreading traditionally refers to a final run through of proofs for minor errors prior to publication. Outside of a publishing context, the term still has connotations of only very light intervention at “surface level” in a way that does not interfere with the content of a text, although it may impact on the way a text is received by the reader. It is often understood to entail, as the final stage of writing, the systematic correction of spelling, grammar, punctuation and inconsistencies in a text. However, in UK higher education, third-party proofreading has come to describe editorial intervention more broadly.

Authorship and academic integrity

Much of the concern around third-party proofreading relates to paid-for proofreading services, and the clearly unethical promises that they make to students about the way in which they can improve a student’s text (“gradeasy,” for example, was advertising on Gower St lamp posts while I was writing this). But whether proofreading involves professional proofreaders, friends and family, or fellow students, there are concerns that by outsourcing difficulties with academic writing, third-party proofreading may prevent student learning, and may falsely represent a student’s abilities, giving them an unfair advantage (for example, Harwood, 2018; Lines, 2016; QAA, 2020). This raises questions over what third-party proofreading can legitimately entail and to what extent it is possible to make a distinction between language and content.

Equity and access

Additionally, there is debate over the role that third-party proofreading should play in a university in terms of accommodating/embracing student difference, such as language and socio-economic background (for example, Corcoran, 2018; Salter-Dvorak, 2019; Turner, 2015). This role must be considered in the context of an increasingly diverse student body, the dependence of UK universities on the fees of international students, and the dominance of English as an academic lingua franca. Moreover, any consideration of equity and access must weigh students’ differential access to finances to pay for professional proofreading against students’ differential access to informal support depending on their home background and social network.

Proofreading at UCL

In UCL’s Language and Writing review in the Academic Manual (9.2.2b), it is permissible for a third party to “check areas of academic writing such as structure, fluency, presentation, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and language translation.” However, “this may be considered Academic Misconduct if substantive changes to content have been made by the reviewer or software or at their recommendation.” UCL has considered developing a more extensive proofreading policy to reduce ambiguity, as well as to address some of the concerns of the Office for Students regarding students’ proficiency in areas such as spelling, punctuation and grammar (OfS, 2021).

As there is little research on best practice, and no agreed norms in the sector on what should go into a policy – in a survey I conducted of other Russell Group university third-party proofreading policies, I found a range of approaches, from prohibiting it entirely (Leeds), to restricting it to student work over 10,000 words (Oxford), to relatively liberal guidance permitting a range of interventions (Newcastle) – I sought the views of UCL students and staff. Student academic representatives and staff involved in faculty education were invited to join a focus group. I ran two focus groups with 12 students, and one focus group with five staff. Opinions shared in the focus groups are not representative of the UCL community. However, the participants shared informed opinions from a range of disciplines, language backgrounds and levels of study which can usefully inform the direction of policy development.

Findings

1. Perceptions of proofreading

In the focus groups, there were various understandings of what proofreading meant, from “checking for mistakes” to “improving writing style and how your arguments are laid out.” There was evidence of different cultural understandings, such as whether “suggestions on the methodology” were appropriate. Students spoke about proofreading practices in terms of proofreading their own work, asking others to have a look over their work informally, as well as paid-for proofreading services. One aspect of these interactions concerned the usefulness of a “second pair of eyes” to give feedback on traditional proofreading areas. Another aspect of these interactions concerned more formative peer interaction around the content and argument of an assignment. A concern, particularly in the student focus groups, was the possibility that a proofreading policy might limit learning opportunities. One student questioned:

Would I have to say that I talked about my paper during lunch one day, with a group of friends? Would I disclose that I looked up synonyms in a thesaurus? Would it matter if it was a professional proofreader or if it was just my sister or a peer?

There was a sense that, as one participant said, “at the moment, people just don’t talk about what you can do and not do.” For a policy to be effective, we need to develop a shared understanding of what constitutes proofreading and a shared language to talk about what those boundaries might be (even if we disagree).

2. Perceptions of acceptable boundaries for third-party proofreading

In the focus groups, acceptable boundaries for third-party proofreading were discussed, based on different levels of intervention and examples of edited text. Students commented that they found articulating these different levels of intervention useful, and that seeing what this actually meant when applied to text gave them a greater understanding, and in some cases changed their opinion.

In both of the student focus groups, there was unanimous agreement that intervention at level 1 (typos, spelling, punctuation, grammar, consistency, layout and formatting) was acceptable. It was frequently suggested, as by this student participant, that “it should be expected that the work is read over by someone else.” There was less certainty regarding intervention at level 2 (tailoring and smoothing by addressing clarity, voice and tone) but most students felt that this was acceptable. There was unanimous agreement that intervention at level 3 (reorganising material; rewriting) and level 4 (deliberately altering the content such as ideas, information, argument; checking facts, numbers, logic; adding and deleting material) was not acceptable.

Staff commented that they themselves would have someone cast an eye over anything important that they wrote, and many agreed that they would encourage students to do the same: “I just think get them to check your grammar… and the assumption here is that the person doing this has no knowledge of the content at all.” Level 1 was considered acceptable by all but one participant, who suggested that a zero-tolerance policy to all third-party proofreading would be simpler: “it’s impossible for me to know whether the language intervention has been just correcting a few commas here and there or actually interfering in how the ideas are expressed.”

There was more hesitation in the staff than the student focus groups over whether level 2 interventions were acceptable, possibly because there was more of a sense of the blurred line between language and content. For example, one member of staff felt that level 2 interventions were questionable because writing and disciplinary understanding were linked: “I’d stick with surface features. I think being able to write paragraphs in a coherent way is something we should be teaching the students, not them outsourcing it. And it very much reflects their understanding of the subject.” In the staff focus group, level 3 and level 4 interventions were also unanimously considered unacceptable.

Across the focus groups (as well as in a separate survey), there was greater acceptance of intervention if the student made the changes her or himself rather than the third party “fixing” them directly in the text.  As one student said:

If you’re having a third party read your work, it should be quite a communicative process… the key thing being that the author of the work makes the suggested edits if they agree with them themselves.

The importance of the student “owning the changes” and “remaining the author of their work” was frequently linked to the possibility of student learning, as well as to fairness.

3. Formative potential

Students spoke about valuable experiences of being taught how to proofread themselves and agreed that this should be encouraged, for example:

I now read my essays aloud… and change the line spacing, change the font, all of that because it just changes the way the document looks and forces you to take in what you’re looking at. It was such a valuable lesson for me to learn.

Nonetheless, it was generally agreed that teaching proofreading skills was not sufficient. It was felt that everyone could benefit from others reading their work, particularly those with English as an additional language or with learning differences. Two students mentioned useful peer proofreading experiences:

We actually had an assignment where we were supposed to bring a first draft and then exchange it with multiple people, and that was an interesting exercise because then you learn how to proofread on your own and someone else’s work. And so I think everybody benefited from that.

Whether through teaching students proofreading skills or teaching them how to draw on outside support appropriately, there was general agreement across focus groups that: “it would be great if this policy built in some kind of a commitment to helping students improve” and that the policy should align with the need to prepare students for life after university. A member of staff commented:

Structuring this policy so that we’re not saying don’t use this stuff, but this is how you can use it in a way that still builds on your own skills and abilities and importantly trains you in using these resources so that if you get a job where you have to write reports, you will know how to do that effectively.

4. Factors to consider in developing a proofreading policy

The findings suggest student learning as the basis for a shared institutional understanding on third-party proofreading. However, strong arguments have been made against third-party proofreading on the grounds that it enables students to avoid learning by outsourcing the work. In a much-quoted article, Scurr insists that proofreading “will do nothing to improve a student’s literacy… the service is designed to disguise illiteracy, not combat it” (2006, para. 9). Yet, in one of the few studies to investigate student learning from third-party proofreading, a high proportion of the survey respondents reported that they had learnt from proofreaders’ interventions (Conrad, 2020). Moreover, Harwood et al. (2012) found that although some of the proofreaders in their study did not identify with a “teacher” role, many of them adopted strategies to make their feedback formative.

These formative strategies frequently entail a “flag but not fix” approach to proofreading (Conrad, 2019). Harwood et al. (2009) suggest that when proofreaders comment on rather than correct student texts, this puts the onus on the student writer to improve their text and integrates “an element of reflection and dialogue” into the proofreading process.

Another formative strategy is to require a discussion between the proofreader and the student to explain the changes. Requiring discussion may be impractical and lead to students ignoring the policy altogether. However, there are less onerous alternatives such as encouraging proofreaders to provide a list of the main issues in a student’s work.

Formative proofreading was the strongest theme to emerge from the focus groups, however there was wide-ranging discussion of factors that should be considered in developing a policy. I have used Universal Design for Higher Education (UDHE) as a framework for the focus group participants’ responses because UDHE is predicated on student diversity as a norm rather than a problem, and because it guides us to consider practice as well as principles. Students arrive at university with vastly varied resources (social capital, finances, language background, home background, academic writing experience, etc) and a proofreading policy is part of an institutional response to managing these differences in an equitable way.

The focus group participants’ suggestions could be considered insofar as they contribute to a policy which is accessible, usable and inclusive, key characteristics of any UDHE pedagogy (Burgstahler, 2021).

Summary of focus group participants’ suggestions for factors to consider in developing a proofreading policy (click on each tab below)

Application of Universal Design Participants' suggestions
  • Clarity of the policy in terms of language used
  • Use simple, accessible language and keep the policy short
  • Include clear definitions, examples or vignettes
  • Accessibility in terms of location of policy
  • Make the policy easy to find on university websites, in programme handbooks etc
  • Awareness of policy among students and staff
  • Include policy in induction
  • Develop online quiz with scenarios, a set of workshops and online training
  • Provide guidance to staff and consistent and regular communication about the policy to students
Application of Universal Design Participants' suggestions
  • Embed in broader pedagogy of university
  • Teach proofreading skills and frame proofreading as a skill
  • Encourage a formative approach to third-party proofreading
  • Provide academic writing support
  • Reasonable expectations of students and staff
  • Ensure the policy is applicable and relevant to the various situations in which a third party might read a student’s work (e.g. including informal arrangements)
  • Teach students how to use outside help appropriately (including peer learning), acknowledge social nature of writing rather than framing third-party proofreading as only an academic integrity issue
  • Align advice and policy so that the message is consistent
  • Aim for consistency across programmes/departments, or where different arrangements apply, put the onus on the department to let students know
  • Ensure clarity concerning the implementation of the policy in particular discipline areas (such as maths, statistics and coding)
Application of Universal Design Participants' suggestions
  • Take into account the different resources and needs of the student body in the way that the policy is framed and in what it permits and prohibits
  • Ensure clarity that third-party proofreading is not an expectation of the university
  • Consideration by academic staff of expectations of student writing
  • Consideration by the university of English language entry requirements and the university’s responsibility to support students with English as an additional language
  • Ensure the policy is appropriate for students with learning differences

 

Some suggestions

As articulated in the focus groups, policy alone is insufficient. Formative strategies can be embedded in teaching in various ways.

Discussion

Staff can use descriptions of different levels of proofreading, and samples of edited text, as a prompt for a discussion about appropriate boundaries. Students in the focus groups also found scenarios useful to make discussion more concrete. Students should know that we understand that writing may involve others, and that writing can be especially difficult for some. At the same time, we can clarify appropriate boundaries (which may vary to an extent depending on discipline, learning outcomes, etc), as well as signpost writing support offered by UCL.

Proofreading one’s own work

Students can be taught strategies for proofreading their own work. This can be introduced as an expected stage in the writing process.  At UCL we have various resources to support students with this. Students can be encouraged to maintain a list of common surface-level errors, and style and language issues in their writing, and to compile feedback from various sources, such as their lecturers, others who read their work, Word/Grammarly.

Peer proofreading

A peer proofreading session can be included as part of a module, in which students exchange and read each other’s papers, following discussion of appropriate boundaries.  This can be a way for students to learn proofreading skills and an opportunity for staff to raise awareness of boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable intervention. The lecturer could specify, as appropriate, which levels of proofreading should be considered. This exercise can include showing students how to “flag but not fix” each other’s work, and to explain why they have flagged certain areas. At the same time, students learn the benefits of a “second pair of eyes.” This can also be an opportunity to distinguish between proofreading and peer review.

Summary

Overall, I found support for a policy that permits limited third-party proofreading, that extends to informal as well as formal arrangements, and that encourages formative proofreading. A guiding principle which many of the staff and students used in their judgements was whether the way the proofreading was carried out facilitated student learning and prepared students for their professional lives. For as one of the focus group participants questioned:

What is the goal of an assignment/assessment? That they did it 100% on their own? That they were able to utilise resources available to them? That they learned?

 

I am grateful to the staff and students who generously gave their time and thoughts for this project.

For the application of Universal Design (UD) to higher education, see DO-IT (University of Washington)

35 thoughts on “Developing an effective and equitable proofreading policy for UCL student work

  1. I think this article is very helpful for my future study. I was taught the extent to which students could use the help of AI, and how to properly cite sources to avoid academic misconduct.

  2. This article is useful to me because it let me understand the difference between collusion and collaboration.

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  4. We can only use the AI to help us proofreading our works reasonably.

  5. This article is very helpful. It illustrates that students are more likely to be trapped into the temptation of the Internet environment,and this may deprive their ability to finish their assignments independently. From this article, I get familiar with the importance of academic integrity. I gain an insight into the appropriate boundaries for their party proofreading.

  6. This information help me a lot and I learn how to write my essay correctly and cite properly.

    • Many useful websites, software and AI are just tools, we can use them as a help, but we could not totally depend on them, especially when they are forbidden.

  7. The blog helps me to understand how the proofreading policy of UCL was designed, and what factors were taken into consideration when making this policy. I learnt that it is acceptable to use formative proofreading as a tool for personal development, and it is important to proofread one’s own work with the help of academic resources of UCL.

  8. I believe this article is truly helpful for me to know more about the proofreading policy at UCL. It gives me a lot of insights to behave well while creating my essays and helps me develop my academic skills.

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  10. It’s really important to improve academic writing skills by ourselves.

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  12. Great help in avoiding academic misconduct.

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  15. it is really useful in helping me to properly utilize the third-party proofreading in the future.

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  18. This blog is really useful in helping me know the definition and all the factors that need to be considered when making policy on proofreading . Now I have gained a profound understanding of the importance of academic integrity and good academic performance.

  19. At present, with the continuous progress of AI technology, college students can indeed make full use of AI to assist their studies, but they should not over-rely on it. The following is my personal advice:
    1. Auxiliary data search and collation: Use AI to help you search and collate data, but you need to personally read, understand and digest these data. For example, AI can help find relevant academic papers, but students should read and write their own summaries.
    2. Time management and task planning: You can use AI tools to plan study time, assign tasks, and remind important things, but you still need to master the allocation of time by yourself.
    3. Avoid over-reliance: Don’t rely too heavily on AI to complete assignments or projects. For example, instead of using AI to directly generate papers or reports, you should do your own independent thinking and writing.
    4. Learn AI technology: For students who are interested in technology, they can learn how to use and develop AI. This will not only help them make better use of AI, but also lay the foundation for their future careers.
    5. Cultivate critical thinking: When using the information provided by AI, students should maintain critical thinking, learn to distinguish between facts and opinions, and avoid being influenced by fake news or biased information.

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  23. The article helps me better understand AI using principles and change my attitude on it.

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  25. This article helps me understand to what extent we can use AI tools for writing essays

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  32. The article is very useful as proofreading policy at UCl is explained in depth. The policy highlights how you can do your own proofreading using various resources available at UCL.

  33. Insightful, however those who do not come from backgrounds in which their friends and family members are highly educated may be at a disadvantage when compared to students whose social circle is highly educated and of whom English is their first language which again increases the socioeconomic divide.

  34. Good article and very helpful

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