This challenging and often prickly topic has elicited a great deal of controversy. There are many editorial purists who do not see editing as a process but who are prescriptive about what should and should not be done. They believe that a line is firmly drawn in the sand with regard to the extent of editing that may be done.

Then there are those editors who have grasped that South Africa has its own unique challenges and are therefore more descriptive about the editorial function. The many different views held by PEG editors of academic texts were evident at a recent webinar on editing examinable academic texts.

The purpose of a thesis or dissertation

It helps first to clarify what the purpose of a thesis or dissertation is so that one can fully understand what the role of the editor should be:

  • It enables the student to demonstrate their capacity for independent research.
  • It teaches them to present their research within the context of other scholarly work.
  • It tests how well students can communicate their ideas and arguments in writing.

The main message at the webinar was that, when editing academic texts, editors are a valuable and valued third party of a troika, the other two parties being the supervisor and the student, like three horses pulling a cart.

If these three elements do not work together, the system can become a metaphor of three horses pulling the cart in three different directions. There is no doubt that this situation would derail the cart, ending in an unsatisfactory outcome. If the three parties in the troika do not understand the essential role that each person fulfils, the process will most certainly fail.

So, what are the roles of the troika?

The student plays the main role by undertaking research that they then report on in the form of a thesis or a dissertation (there is no clarity as to which belongs to which level of study, a Master’s or a PhD). This research report needs to be examined in order for the student to be found competent at doing research and presenting it by communicating their ideas and arguments in writing.

The role played by the second party, the supervisor, is the second-most important one. Their role is to develop the student’s research skills in order to guide them towards ‘passing’ the test. Their guidance could include the following:

  • Understanding the various steps in both the research and writing it up, and the order in which the steps should occur or appear.
  • Whether there is a research question and whether the student phrases and answers it clearly.
  • Whether their argument is like a golden thread weaving itself through the chapters, first posed in the first chapter and then answered in the last.

Finally, the editor’s role is to ensure that the student’s argumentation is communicated in a language that passes muster: clear, formal, logical and convincing. The editor’s role extends to checking the correctness of in-text citations and the correct listing of sources as references according to the bibliographic requirements of the institution. If the research report is full of grammatical and language errors, it distracts the examiner from grasping the flow of the argument, which cannot be communicated effectively because of linguistic weakness.

Ethical considerations

The editor’s role therefore raises ethical considerations, which are:

  • What kind of editing is appropriate?
  • How much editing is permissible?
  • At what point is there a risk that the thesis or dissertation will no longer be the student’s original work?

Ethics refers to the following:

  • Well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what human beings ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness or specific virtues.
  • Moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the way in which an activity can be conducted.

Ethical considerations are usually captured in a set of standards (guidelines for editing research theses), which outline what professional editors may ethically do and also the responsibilities of the editor, the student and the supervisor (the troika) regarding the editing.

For example?

In Australia, the guidelines for editing have been endorsed by the Australian Council of Good Research. Recognising the roles of the troika, their guidelines are divided into three parts:

  • Editing academic theses (editor)
  • Engaging a professional editor to edit your thesis (student)
  • When your student wishes to engage an editor (supervisor)

There are three levels of editing, namely:

  • Substantive editing (including structural): assessing and shaping the material to improve its organisation and content – editing to clarify meaning, improve flow and smooth language;
  • Copy-editing: editing to ensure consistency, accuracy or correctness and completeness;
  • Proofreading: examining material after it has been laid out to correct errors in textual and visual elements.

It is helpful to look at the standards of other countries, since South Africa does not have its own standards yet (although PEG is busy working on these). Australia’s Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd) says:

  • Supervisors should provide their students with editorial advice on:
    • matters of content, substance and structure;
    • how to interpret the research literature and data;
    • how to use illustrations and tables;
    • how to use language (including clarity, voice and tone, grammar, spelling and punctuation);
    • how to use technical and specialised terminology;
    • some copyediting and proofreading.
  • Editors must only:
    • copyedit;
    • proofread.

IPEd does not allow:

  • corrections to be made to the content, substance or structure of a thesis (but the editor may note, or flag, problems for the student’s attention);
  • checking facts, references to others’ work or plagiarism.

If problems of this type are identified, the editor may advise the student to check the university’s guidelines and to seek advice from their supervisor.

What are South Africa’s unique challenges?

Each country has its own unique challenges, but what are the unique challenges in South Africa?

  • The profile of the student in a developing country differs significantly from the profiles of those in developed countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom or Holland:
    • There are 11 official languages in South Africa.
    • The author may be writing in English as a second, third or even fourth language.
    • The supervisor may also not have English as a first language.
    • There are many cultural differences (including among student, supervisor and editor).
    • Apartheid-era education has had a profound impact on generations of students.
  • Higher education is more business-driven (numbers are mainly based on subsidies and throughput rates).
  • There are many students who come from other African countries to study at South African universities, with resultant massification, where the ratio of educational resources (ie lecturers, supervisors) to class numbers is excessively high.
  • Lecturers therefore have less time to devote to individual students, especially postgraduates.
  • The staff profile in our universities is also changing, with many lecturers coming from other countries and many South African lecturers facing retirement.

In view of all these challenges, academic editing may have to be developmental, bearing in mind that the student is facing neither a language test nor a test of the extent of their computer literacy.

Consequently, I believe that South African editors should attend to all the copy-editing and proofreading issues, which include:

  • formatting tables and figures;
  • imposing conformity of references and citations to a specified referencing system or style;
  • cross-checking citations in the text and the reference list against each other (for omissions and mismatches);
  • checking the accuracy of references online, where necessary.

Supervisors (not the editors) should:

  • make corrections to the content, substance and/or structure of the research report;
  • ensure that there is no plagiarism.

What about a reference check?

With specific reference to editing citations and the list of references, the editor should:

  • correct citations;
  • cross-reference citations with the references, ensuring that each citation has a corresponding reference, and vice versa;
  • correct all the language errors (eg punctuation, capitalisation) in the reference list according to the bibliographic convention of the university or instruct the student to correct the errors and explain exactly how this should be done;
  • offer to correct the references for an additional fee.

Note to all the prescriptivists

There are so many automatic referencing systems that can be used (Mendeley, Endnote, Refworks, etc) that the author does not need to know how to do the referencing, so why can you not do these corrections for them? The edited references are bound to be more correct and consistent than those generated by automatic referencing systems.

As the editor, clarify from the outset – before commencing the editing – whether the client wants you to do an in-depth reference check. Editing references is time-consuming and may lead to a great deal of frustration on the part of both the student (who does not realise that the editing of references is an optional extra) and the editor (who has been given a deadline without the student realising how much additional work comes with a complete online reference check).

In conclusion

The main guiding principle is: be kind and helpful. Adopt a developmental approach. Do so because the student usually knows very little about undertaking and writing up a research project, since almost no teaching about it takes place at many universities. And, often, the supervisor knows very little about the process too. The fact that many students are writing in a language that is not their first language makes their task infinitely more exacting – and the kind and helpful intervention of the editor invaluable.


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

About Cathy Robertson

Cathy specialises in academic editing. She has an MA in Critical Linguistics cum laude as well as a PhD in Education. She is a PEG mentor, a research associate at Stellenbosch University and has been the managing editor of an academic journal for the past four years.

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.