Proofreading Tips: What Counts as Plagiarism in Academic Writing?

Proofreading Tips: What Counts as Plagiarism in Academic Writing?

  • Oct 01, 2020
  • 5 min read

To do their job well, academic proofreaders need to know what constitutes plagiarism. This is partly so they can help clients avoid it. But guidelines on academic plagiarism may also affect the kinds of services you can provide. With that in mind, here, we look at:

  • What counts as plagiarism in academic writing.
  • What proofreaders need to know about academic plagiarism.
  • How you can help academic clients avoid plagiarism.

Read on below to find out more on this tricky subject.

What Is Academic Plagiarism?

Broadly speaking, plagiarism is taking someone else’s words or ideas and passing them off as your own. In academic writing, this may include:

  • Submitting work substantially written by someone else (e.g., an essay from an essay mill or a paper that has been so heavily edited it is no longer in the author’s own words).
  • Not citing sources or placing quoted text in quote marks.
  • Using images, data or other content without proper attribution.

Some authors will do the above in an attempt to cheat (i.e., academic fraud). But in many instances it is unintentional, especially with students who are new to academic writing.

In all cases, though, plagiarism can have serious consequences for the author. Students may lose marks on their work, or even their place on a course. And being accused of plagiarism can damage the career of a professional academic, so it is always best avoided.

Moreover, while we may not face the academic consequences that our clients do, there are consequences for proofreaders, too. Minimally, if a client is accused of plagiarism after you edit their work, they are unlikely to come back. And this could affect your reputation.

When proofreading academic writing, then, it pays to be aware of plagiarism.

Proofreading and Academic Writing

So, what does a proofreader need to know about plagiarism to work on academic writing?

The key factor is that some institutions, especially universities, have restrictions on proofreading and editing. This ensures that students are assessed on their own work, not the work of the editors who tidied up and corrected their writing. Some universities also require students to use an editing service from a list of approved providers.

When working for a student client, then, proofreaders should not:

  • Make corrections that change the substance of what is being said (e.g., the facts presented in a paper or the conclusions the author has drawn on their basis).
  • Coach clients on factual or other substantive issues in feedback.
  • Make significant structural changes that would affect the argument in an essay.
  • Add new content to a document.
  • Change calculations, equations, or formulae in an essay.

There is room for variation here, as different universities have different rules regarding proofreading. Some even encourage students to get their work proofread. And many journals require academics to have their papers checked by a professional editor before submission.

But if you are working for a student client, it is worth checking their institution’s guidelines on proofreading before accepting a job so you can offer an appropriate service.

Helping Clients Avoid Academic Plagiarism

Even within a limited proofreading remit, there are things you can do to help your client avoid accidental academic plagiarism in their work. Notably:

  • Make sure all sources are clearly cited according to the client’s chosen system. You would not usually add missing references, but you can correct typos if you’re sure something is an error and/or leave comment asking the client to check something.
  • Check that quotations are presented and attributed correctly. This may include making minor edits to formatting or punctuation as required.
  • Highlight any passages that would benefit from a level of rewriting outside a proofreading remit, then leave a polite comment to prompt the client to clarify their meaning. Minor changes for clarity are fine, but rewriting or restructuring text is not.

And if you see something that looks like plagiarism, such as a passage of text copied from the internet without attribution, simply leave a sensitively worded comment (e.g., “Does this require a citation? Please be sure to cite all relevant sources in the text and reference list”).

Learn More About Academic Proofreading

Want to learn more about how to proofread for students and academics? Our Becoming A Proofreader course covers this and so much more. And if you want to develop your skills even further, our Becoming An Editor course teaches everything you need to know about editing both assessed and unassessed academic writing.

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