A good editor can add significant value to the quality of a thesis. In this edition of PEGblog, Jacqui Baumgardt tells us why and how.
Reading time: 12 minutes
The worth of a thesis
A thesis is the personal work of a student attempting to achieve a master’s or doctoral degree in a chosen field. It needs to be written in an academic style that would be found acceptable within the international community and, because it usually becomes the copyright of the university for publication purposes, it is a showcase for the kind of work that is produced at the university.
Well-recognised universities are known for their academic output. It is therefore a feather in their cap, so to speak, if their students’ theses (or articles derived from them) are worthy of publication. Students can also feel proud of their work if it is published by the university.
Why a thesis should be edited
Students may often have the knowledge and background required within their field of research, but may not possess articulate writing skills and, as is common for many students, it is difficult to pick up one’s own mistakes (also known as ‘error-blindness’).
A thesis editor will be in a good position to have an objective viewpoint and this, combined with excellent language skills, will enable the editor to assist the student to achieve an excellent result. For a master’s degree cum laude, a minimum mark of 75% is required; a doctorate is not given a mark as such, since it is required to achieve a level of excellence beyond the level of a cum laude. Few students can achieve this on their own.
The second weakness of many students is the ability to reference correctly, even if a style guide has been provided. The thesis editor will be able to identify the errors and omissions in a list of references or a bibliography and edit the list in accordance with the prescribed style guide of the university or academic institution.
Good referencing is key to the acceptance of the thesis among peers and the academic community. It assures the reader that the work is of an acceptable academic standard and can be relied on in terms of its results.
A third extremely important issue is that of plagiarism. In the electronic age where information is accessible online, there is great temptation simply to copy and paste sentences or even paragraphs, often without due acknowledgement or any critical thinking applied to what the original author said.
An editor will be able to sense a stylistic change in the student’s writing, which is usually a flag indicating plagiarism. The editor should refer this back to the student for attention and not edit it, in my view.
A further problem is that students may also simply google the concept and find non-academic articles from which they take the information, rather than using Google Scholar or similar repositories that would direct them to properly written, researched, referenced and peer-reviewed academic articles.
Other academic repositories are also available to students through their academic institutions. The editor would be in a position to point the student in the right direction.
Related to this is that students often fall into the trap of summarising other authors’ works, an exercise that has little value. This may amount to the summarisation of a series of theories, findings or models.
A good editor would be able to identify this pattern within the thesis pointing out the need to students that they should demonstrate critical thinking about what they read. It is, therefore, important that students should be able to synthesise, weave, blend, compare and contrast information from a range of authors on the same topic.
The problem should be pointed out to the student so that the correction becomes a teaching exercise as well, from which students should be able to learn. Students need to become critical thinkers, not merely regurgitating the ideas of others, but being able to contribute new thinking to a theory or concept, and thereby grow the body of knowledge.
The structure of the thesis
Although not directly within an editor’s brief, the structure of the thesis could also be evaluated and corrected. For example, each chapter must address the objectives determined in the proposal – the so-called golden thread. An editor needs to be able to make sense of the student’s work, and without the golden thread, the task becomes difficult.
One could simply say that it is the student’s responsibility to ensure this, and therefore simply edit what is presented in terms of grammatical correctness, spelling and sense, but, unless this is pointed out, it is unlikely that students would make this adjustment for themselves. As a result, the thesis would not pass muster when it comes to the final assessment.
Formatting in accordance with the academic requirements of the university or academic institution is another area where an editor can assist. Despite modern technology being available, many students are not technologically skilled when it comes to formatting. This leads to inconsistencies in important matters like line and paragraph spacing, headings, labelling of diagrams, naming and captioning of figures and tables, pagination and, most importantly, the creation of an automated table of contents.
An editor can add considerable value to the worth of a student’s thesis, assisting students to develop good academic skills, such as referencing, which students could take with them into their future academic endeavours.
Please note: I did not refer to any articles or references in the compilation of this article, which was written based entirely on my own practical experience.
About Jacqui Baumgardt
Jacqui Baumgardt has a PhD in Education Management from UNISA and has a Certificate in Copy-Editing from the University of Cape Town. Formerly a teacher of English, and an academic manager of a professional body, she has years of experience in the editing of academic assignments, proposals, theses and dissertations, more especially in the field of business (eg MBA) and education. She is a full member of 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.