As a professional proofreader, some of my work is in the area of assistance for non-English speaking students in their written work. This is mildly controversial, since academic staff are reluctant to put students in a position where the boundary is blurred between the student’s work and someone else's; and I must say I have sympathy with that reluctance. Plagiarism and passing-off are real problems, especially in the internet age. I was asked recently to proofread a series of papers for a Spanish medical student (or students – I never discovered which), where the brief was to check for grammar, punctuation, spelling and content. Content, particularly in the context of a university course, is not the province of a professional proofreader, though it may be the province of an unprofessional one – no doubt somebody got the job!
From the student's point of view, there isn't always a problem because on-campus help is available at many universities, often under the auspices of the International Office, Grad School or Students’ Union. At Edinburgh, for example, the Students' Association operates a Peer Proofreading service where volunteers, who are vetted for aptitude, accept electronic versions of assignments and give them the once-over for spelling and use of English. At Manchester, students are offered one-off academic writing tutorials. If you're lucky enough to be a Chinese student at University of Regina, Saskatchewan, where there are strong historical ties with China, you will get classes in English as a second language, and assistance with written work in all courses and at all levels.
That said, where on-campus help is patchy, limited or unavailable I have sympathy with the non-English speaking student who may get along well enough in conversation, but who finds it hard to make an argument on paper using consistently well-structured, grammatically correct English with just the right shade of meaning – not to mention the unfortunate tutor who, in order to mark fairly, may have to work hard to get at the arguments at all. Take this opening sentence of a paper on Long Tail Marketing (the subject is spurious but the structure of the sentence is from an actual paper):-
'The long tail of marketing has reached unprecedented influence among the world in recent decades more than ever.'
The meaning is clear, but the sentence is grammatically problematic and not very elegant. The student may well go on to make a persuasive argument, but there’s a danger that the limitations of his or her vocabulary will obscure it. As a proofreader, if I were offered this sentence I would want to render the prose more clearly and excise the tautology of the last three words, ending up with something like this:-
'In recent decades, the concept of the “long tail” of marketing has gained unprecedented currency around the world.'
But it's important to know when to stop. Were it not the premise of the whole piece, I might be tempted to check whether the writer meant 'Long Tail Marketing' or the 'long tail of marketing', which has a subtly different meaning. Often the writer will use buzzwords or forms of expression which seem out of place but which turn out to be particular to the discipline in which he or she is training, so what appears to be a wrong construction may be nothing of the sort. Even if it is wrong, it may well be the case that the student should have got it right; my point being that, either way, it’s likely to be outwith the scope of proofreading. (Which brings me to another, similar, point: in the previous sentence I used the word ‘outwith’, which you won’t find in every dictionary – interestingly, it’s in Oxford, but not Chambers – so there’s another case of, ‘if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it’.)
My advice to non-English speaking students who are having difficulty is this: first, check out the assistance available within the university; if that assistance is inadequate or non-existent, or if for some other reason you are unwilling to avail yourself of it (I know from reading – actually, proofreading – sociology papers that some students are reluctant, even embarrassed, to share what they see as a 'problem' with their peers), then I would say, discuss the options with your tutor and seek help from a professional proofreader only if you are given their blessing.
If you are interested in the specifics of what proofreading involves, there is a brief overview on the Proofreading page of my website at www.thebluecabin.com/proofreading. Please ignore the ‘Light edit’ option which, as I hope I’ve made clear, goes beyond what can properly be offered to university students!