I have been a supervisor and an examiner of academic texts but am now an editor of academic texts. I offer my services in academic editing because I want the student’s (and the university’s) efforts to be honoured with a well packaged product. This post explains a little about how I understand the work I do and the services I offer as an academic text editor.


Some people say editors should not edit academic references because the student is examined on them. I disagree. As a minimum, I think that editors should check the consistency of the references with the style in both the text and the List of References and make the appropriate track changes. In the text, this involves number of authors and the use of et al., order of authors and punctuation. In the List of References, this involves punctuation, capitalisation and italics. In addition, editors should point out if there are elements missing or incomplete. If editors do not offer this level of intervention, they should not charge for those pages/words and should tell the authors ahead of time that they do not edit references at all.


To me, checking elements of referencing is no different to checking for correct grammar and punctuation in the main text. While it is true that students are examined on their ability to reference correctly, students are examined on their grammar as well, which is why they send their material to language editors. In my opinion, if we take a hard line on references and do not even correct according to the style, then we should take a hard line on grammar in the text as well. This would mean we should stop doing any editing work at all, which is ridiculous!

Technical skill vs academic competency

My further thoughts on the issue of reference editing are that referencing is a technical skill and not a primary academic skill. The academic skill (which is what the examiner is focussed on) is finding the reference in the first place, the relevance of the reference within the field, and the correct use of it in the context of that section of the text. Nowadays, most reference lists are constructed using software such as Endnote, so students (and supervisors) do not even know how to construct or correct a reference, never mind how to correct a reference within Endnote (I find there are always errors with Endnote, such as capitalisation and italics or picking up first names as surnames).

Giving clients an option

I ask my clients whether they’d like me to just check style details and whether the references in the text appear in the List of References and vice versa, or whether they want a full service, which also checks accuracy (spelling, dates, volume numbers, DOI numbers). I do not supply missing references. I state in my editing certificate (which I attach to the document) that I have checked the references for style, formatting and accuracy.

When dissertations are produced via journal articles

Nowadays, many dissertations and theses are produced via journal articles, i.e., each chapter is a previously published journal article or has been submitted and is awaiting publication. This is particularly the case in the sciences, which is where most of my editing comes from. In such cases, I am engaged to edit the article so that it conforms to the journal guidelines, including formatting, referencing style and accuracy, so that the edited document is ready for submission to the journal. The student will not be the only author – their supervisor and sometimes others are authors as well. I return the article with tracked changes and comments, so the final responsibility lies with the student as well as the supervisor and other authors. In due course, the published articles (in PDF form) are compiled by me with freshly written Introduction and Conclusion and Recommendations chapters, for submission to examiners. Thus, the examiners only see the published journal articles when they receive the thesis for examination – they are not the first ones to see the references, the peer reviewers of the journal article are.

Formatting and layout

There is another issue related to academic editing that I have an opinion on, and that is formatting and layout. I check for consistency of margins, font and line spacing. I apply Styles to headings and captions and produce an automatic Table of Contents, List of Figures, List of Tables and List of Appendices. I apply Styles to the appendix headings and check general layout but do not edit appendices. This makes it much easier for me to work with the document, it looks professional, and it is much easier for the examiners to navigate. Again, this is a technical issue, not an academic issue. Grammar is ultimately a technical issue as well. Students and supervisors do not necessarily have the technical capability for layout and formatting, just as they do not for grammar.

A final word

We are hired for our technical ability and skills, not our intellectual or content input. The technical aspects of a dissertation or thesis are not going to cause a student to pass or fail. A good technical impression regarding layout and formatting on its own might make a small contribution to a mark, but that is not the issue from my point of view: The issue is that bad technical aspects of a document are like noise, in that they distract from the ability to focus on the content, and they irritate examiners. Examiners are busy people, so one wants to make their path as smooth as possible (I say this from personal experience rather than assumption).


(For more on academic editing, see Copy-editing academic texts. Guidelines for students and authors and The basics of academic referencing)

Photo credits: Canva

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About Richard Steele

I am a homeopath in private practice in Gxarha [Morgan Bay], Eastern Cape, and a freelance academic editor. My first degree was a BA degree majoring in English and Psychology followed by an HDE(PG)Sec in English and Guidance, at UCT (1976-1979). I never taught in the school system, being a full-time, peace, justice and human rights activist up until the end of 1992. I began my study as a homeopath at the Durban University of Technology in 1993, graduating in 1999 with an MTech(Hom) degree. I was a part-time lecturer and clinician in the student clinic of the Department of Homeopathy at DUT from 2002 until the end of 2015.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.