Do supervisors have to act as editors?

Added by Lizorna on 05 May 2010 13:50

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The question sometimes comes up when I talk with academic staff who are on their institution’s training course for supervisors, about the support research students need from their supervisors in managing information and in using it to produce a dissertation that does justice to the quality of their research.

The answer I give is ‘Yes and No’, because there are two kinds of editing: content editing and copy editing. The first involves using subject knowledge to advise, question, challenge — on sources, structure, sequence, evidence, strength of arguments. It’s the proper responsibility of supervisors to do that from start to finish of research. If they don’t, they leave their students unaware of weaknesses that can lead to ultimate failure.

Copy editing consists of checking syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and applying a ‘house style’. It’s no part of the supervisor’s job to do this (and if both supervisor and researcher went to school in a period when clause analysis and the parts of speech weren’t taught, they won’t have the terminology to discuss them).  If researchers’ work shows problems of this kind, supervisors should make sure as quickly as possible that they go to whatever course on them the institution offers.

The topic came up a few months ago, in different context – reviewing an article, based on the author’s Master’s dissertation, that had been submitted to a journal.  In response to the questions asked of reviewers, I had to say that:

It was not well argued: the ground shifted in the course of the article, and there were inconsistencies between the initial definition of the purpose and what was actually presented.

A lot of relevant argumentation or evidence was missing: the author failed to discuss a key topic he/she had said would be considered; several relevant sources on the central topic were not mentioned, and the one that was quoted was in fact of marginal relevance, being mainly on a different subject.

The conclusions and interpretations were not consistently sound and justified by the data: several appeared unjustified, while the significance of other elements of data appeared to have been overlooked.

The abstract was misleading: the purpose as defined was not adequately discussed in the body of the article or the conclusions.

The references were relevant so far as they went, but it appeared that sometimes the full significance of their content had not been considered, and a number of highly relevant references were not cited.

All of that made it impossible to recommend publication of the paper in its present form; it would not have helped the author’s reputation, and I was left feeling cross with the supervisor who had failed in his/her responsibilities by not acting as a content editor should. Was I right?

Liz Orna: Liz has been an information consultant and writer since 1979, after many years as an information manager. She has lectured to student researchers, in the UK and overseas, about organizing information and writing dissertations over the past 25 years. She is the co-author, along with Graham Stevens, of Managing Information for Research.

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