Is Hiring a Dissertation Editor Considered Cheating?

A guide to the ethical considerations and types of editing available for graduate students considering hiring a dissertation editor.
A student sitting at a wooden table behind a pile of books, which obscures their head so that it looks like their head is made of books.

When it comes to the ethics of having graduate student work professionally edited, opinions vary widely, with some advisors encouraging all of their students to get dissertation editing and others fervently opposed to any professional interventions in their students’ degree progress. So, is hiring an editor for your dissertation or thesis cheating? 

Ultimately, the decision whether to hire a freelance editor should be made between you and your advisor. Unlike in Canada or the UK, where there may be stricter guidelines, PhD or master’s candidates in the US do not need the consent of their advisor to have their work copyedited to correct grammar, punctuation, and apply a style guide to the formatting and citations. On the other hand, developmental editing—shaping the argument, organization, and the way the content is presented—is generally considered to be the purview of the student’s advisor and readers.

This post describes some of the ethical considerations for graduate students in considering hiring a dissertation editor and outlines the types of editorial services typically offered for students.

Ethical Editing for Graduate Students 

While learning how to compose a scholarly text and properly cite your sources is essential to earning your degree, by the time you’ve begun writing your dissertation or thesis you should have already gained and proven your mastery of these skills: you’ve taken graduate-level coursework, presented at conferences, and maybe even published an article or two. You’ve proven to your advisor that you know what you’re doing and they’ve decided that you’re ready to write a book-length manuscript by the time you finish graduate school. 

Nonetheless, many dissertation and thesis writers struggle with the basic building blocks of the book-writing process, including how to properly apply English grammar rules, write sentences that flow easily from one to the next, and format proper citations or correct errors produced by a citation manager like Zotero. This is where an academic copyeditor comes in. 

In cases like this, you need to find yourself an ethical copyeditor who knows what they’re doing when it comes to graduate student work and is familiar with graduate-student assessment, particularly what can be changed and what should be left as-is in order to show the student’s own work. The goal of the dissertation/thesis copyeditor is therefore to avoid altering any aspect of the work that might influence the final assessment of the dissertation or thesis. 

Most advisors (and editors themselves) agree that full developmental edits are not appropriate for graduate student work. A full developmental edit is a more hands-on approach that considers the content, structure, and organization of the document. A full developmental edit, which is often used for book projects, assumes an advisory role that, in the graduate student context, should be fulfilled by the students’ primary supervisor or committee members. 

Editors can, however, provide manuscript assessments (also called a manuscript critique) for graduate students that, unlike full developmental edits, do not include direct changes to the manuscript itself. A manuscript assessment, which often takes the form of a written report, will provide the editor’s opinions and then prompt the student to revise as they and their advisor see fit.  

Keep in mind that, if you do engage a freelance editor to aid you in the writing process, the final, edited work should always reflect your original thoughts and labor. Earning your graduate degree is, after all, a test of your ability to execute a well-researched and well-developed scholarly text that demonstrates your skills in synthesizing information to generate new knowledge, and an outside editor should never impede your committee’s ability to determine that you have achieved this. 

Why Get Your Dissertation/Thesis Edited?

Your dissertation or thesis is a long text; and, if you’re anything like me, when you’ve been engrossed in a writing project for a long time, it becomes almost impossible to catch every mechanical mishap, let alone those pesky dangling modifiers. And the fact of the matter is—and you know this if you’ve already published something—scholarly work always gets copyedited and proofread before publication, so why should your dissertation be any different? 

Ultimately, your academic advisor is not a copyeditor, nor are your committee members, although they will all likely comment on your text as you progress through the dissertation-writing process. Advisors are there to comment and assess the content of your work, not correct your grammar and spelling. Why let typos get in the way of your committee focusing on your contribution to your field?

Conversely, dissertation/thesis copyeditors are there to do just that: cleanup the mechanics and grammar, while leaving content and substantive edits up to you and your committee. Copyeditors can also help you adhere to style guides, ensuring that your text is consistent and your citations are formatted in accordance with the most recent edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, or any other citation format your field requires. Especially for non-native writers of English, a copyeditor can be a critical tool for ensuring more time can be spent on the substance of your work than the idiosyncrasies of English grammar. 

Others might struggle to get feedback from their advisors because they encounter more fundamental problems with structuring an academic manuscript or creating a clear thesis statement that flows throughout. A manuscript assessment can help you gain valuable writing skills that will help you overcome the thesis-writing hurdle and become a better writer in the future.

But whether you struggle with writing or not, getting to know the editing process already in this early stage of your academic career has great benefits. As you move on from the dissertation or thesis, you will likely want to transition into preparing your first book, publish articles more frequently, and start to think about the dreaded second project. Inevitably you’ll find yourself working with an editor on these endeavors, and, having worked with one before, you’ll already know what to expect. 

Flatepage’s Graduate Student Services  

  • Copyediting: Services include correcting grammar and punctuation, and applying a style guide to text and citations. 
  • Manuscript Assessment: One of our editors will read your manuscript, make copious notes, and send you a detailed report outlining their findings, including the manuscript’s key strengths and weaknesses with big-picture revision advice.
  • Dissertation/Thesis Formatting: Correcting layout issues, including front matter, pagination, figures and tables, headings, and page margins according to your university’s style guide.
  • Citation Editing: Formatting footnotes or bibliography citations according to your chosen style guide (Chicago style, APA, etc.) or converting notes into a bibliography.
About the author

Kaylee (she/her) is a dissertation/thesis copyeditor at Flatpage. She earned her PhD in art history and visual culture from Duke University in 2021 and has more than a decade of experience working in arts institutions and higher education. Kaylee has experience copyediting for native and non-native English speakers, as well as formatting manuscripts for ProQuest and converting notes into bibliographies.


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