Tips and Tricks: The Perils of Pauline – Editing Research Theses

Dr Diane Brown is a professional member of IPEd and Editors Victoria, and freelances full-time as an academic editor and consultant to Australian universities. A version of this article was first published in the South Australian branch newsletter, the Word (September 2017 issue).

Since I wrote this, I have heard from colleagues that the panel on academic editing at the Brisbane conference was lively and heated! It is regrettable that I could not attend. This article is my contribution to the ongoing discussion and debate on editing research theses.

There is an increasing interest in, and market for, editing and proofreading research theses.

This trend, tied to the exponential growth in the number of international students in universities (and other private educational institutions), is not about to reverse in the short term.

However, editing research theses can be risky and not for the faint-hearted. If you share my passion for research, you will embrace and enjoy the challenge!

I will refer to recent statistics from the national IPEd National Survey of Editors, 2016 and add a few professional observations.

Regarding qualifications, 93% of respondents to the IPEd survey had a degree, but only 12% had a doctorate. While having a PhD is not essential, I am of the view that editors should have a demonstrated background in research, and preferably a PhD, in order to edit higher degree research (HDR) theses.

While editors have a broad general knowledge, those with doctorates have experienced the candidature process firsthand. This experience is not altogether essential, but it provides academic editors with a grounded understanding of thesis production from candidature proposal to examination.

I will briefly outline my background, which may be useful to get you thinking about career pathways and skill sets. Briefly, before editing HDR theses I gained my PhD in Arts (Communication, Language and Cultural Studies) and my Diploma in Editing and Publishing. (I was among the first intake of Monash students for the Diploma in 1997, which culminated in a rigorous three-hour exam set by Beryl Hill.)

I continued to research and write for publication in scholarly books and journals until I reached the conclusion that independent research did not pay, and I needed to earn a living wage. I decided to focus on my freelance editing business full-time. This was a bold move, but my passion for academic inquiry meant I was always going to be engaged with research, which eventually led to specialisation as an academic editor with Australian universities.

As Jackey Coyle recently stated1, ‘It’s important for editors to earn a living wage … and that their experience and expertise are honoured by clients. Inexperienced editors do tend to quote less than their more experienced colleagues’. While I understand the logic about quoting lower fees as an early career editor, I struggle with the fact that this undermines and devalues the editing profession.

The IPEd survey found that editors are not a high-earning group and many necessarily combined editing with other paid work. (In my case I worked in-house, four days per week at the Australian Council for Educational Research, while a project editor took maternity leave. During this time I continued to run my freelance editing business from home, which meant I was working a seven-day week.)

Of the 541 editors who responded to the IPEd survey, only 23% worked full-time. Most respondents (76%) were freelance editors. I suspect that many have partners with steady incomes, or they have other paid work that supplements their freelance editing work.

I will now discuss how I work on HDR theses and quoting for this type of work.

First and foremost, I touch base with the principal supervisor. It is essential to let the supervisor know that you have been contacted by the student, and to obtain formal permission from the supervisor via email reply to edit the thesis. This email exchange is a courtesy and by way of a brief. I also keep the principal supervisor informed as I edit the thesis by copying them into key email correspondence between the student and me.

I do not edit earlier thesis drafts or chapter by chapter. This is fraught with problems and not best practice. I accept the final full draft, approved (signed off) by the principal supervisor for editing. That means the student has addressed all changes requested by their supervisor(s) before the draft comes to me. The edited version is the one the candidate and supervisor finalise for examination.

Some editing agencies claim they will edit and format the thesis so it is ‘examination ready’. This implies there is no further work for the candidate to do! And that these agencies do not understand the formal steps to be undertaken by the supervisor/candidate after working with an editor and before the thesis is submitted for examination.

It is one thing to edit a thesis and quite another to quote for this type of work. There are many hidden factors that do not always present at the outset, which is why it is critical to have a substantive sample on which to base your quote. It is not best practice to quote for thesis work based on a few sample pages. Work on the premise that more is better. And, importantly, the quote should factor in the editor’s time and experience.

I think an estimate is more honest than a firm quote. This allows for more flexibility in adjusting my fee for service later, if needed.

Check early on about terms of payment. Always ask for a contact name and email address in university finance regarding invoicing and remittance. Universities operate in different ways and some do not cover the costs of external editing, which means the client (student) pays.

I ask for an upfront deposit before I commit to the work. This deposit locks in the job, and guarantees the student a place in my work queue and on-time delivery of the edited thesis.

For many less experienced editors, quoting for thesis work is a matter of trial and error because they don’t feel confident about quoting accurately and at a reasonable rate. Some anecdotes in the IPEd survey are telling: editors believed they should charge below their standard rates for thesis editing because students have limited incomes, or they quoted for what they thought students were willing to pay. (And so we come back to editors earning a living wage and not undermining the profession by undercharging.)

Recently a South Australian colleague remarked that editors do not tend to share their rates, and many have to figure out what they will charge alone. I am not about to share my fees for service, because it is not appropriate. I charge an hourly rate for thesis editing, and payment varies per project in relation to what I am being asked to do.

The IPEd survey data is a benchmark: the national average hourly rate charged by freelancers is $67, which has not changed since the 2014 survey. For those who varied their rates, the average (mean) rate for proofreading was $55/hour, for copyediting $65/hour and for thesis editing $54/hour.

If your clients are research students, many are interested in securing the most competitive quote. I have frequently argued that by accepting the lowest quote, more often than not students get what they paid for (a botched job).

In sum, if we are to communicate effectively in a technologised culture, the relevant information – in this case, how we best go about editing and proofreading HDR theses – must be conveyed to students and supervisors, and indeed universities, including promoting the value of working with professional editors.

An important part of my role, and that of IPEd, is to continue to educate universities about what it is that external academic editors do, and the value they add.

Diane Brown


1The Business of Editing Q&A: June Dinner Report’ in Editors Victoria July 2017 newsletter.