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By Camilla Cripps

Editors NSW welcomed Dr Kai Jensen AE to their 2024 professional development series on Tuesday 2 April. Kai shared his lived experiences of working with Australian universities, covering the sorts of editing work that universities, their staff and their students are willing to pay for, how editors can secure this work, and how working with universities is changing.

Kai’s involvement with the tertiary sector is lengthy. Born to academic parents, he spent 10 years studying English and Ancient Greek, before working in university administration and academic governance for 25 years. His current business, PolicyTrain, assists institutions to improve their policy and governance documents.

Kai described how the written artefacts of universities are often ponderous, overly formal and unnecessarily dense. Scaffolded on academic writing (which, in Kai’s opinion, is already not a good model of clear communication), university syntax attempts to uphold a pretence of importance while failing to prioritise the needs of the reader. This cycle is perpetuated by students being exposed to this kind of writing even across non-academic, administrative material.

After providing some very illustrative examples of how this academic “jargonese” can be improved for more successful communication, Kai explored opportunities for editors to be involved in the creation, and maintenance, of tertiary-sector texts. These opportunities include editing student theses and dissertations; editing or indexing academic books, chapters or journal articles; editing or improving grant applications and promotion submissions; and editing administrative documents. Did you know that across Australia’s 37 public universities there are approximately 75,000 staff? Each one is responsible for certain written outputs, and most are at least half-aware their writing could be improved. This is where editors come in.

At the student level, theses can form a moderately paid but steady income stream, with many doctorate students having access to small amounts of funding they can use for such things. Kai reminded us that any editing of student work needs to adhere to the stipulations set out in IPEd’s Guidelines for editing research theses and that failure to do so could be regarded as contract cheating.

Building on the theme of academic editing and turning to university academic staff, Kai acknowledged the “publish or perish” culture of Australian universities. He explored how this is not always analogous with the writing skills of academics from faculties outside of the arts and humanities. Unlike editing theses or student texts, academic editing of scholarly outputs such as books, book chapters and journal articles is not usually limited in scope, and editors can provide structural editing services along with copyediting. This can be of particular benefit in reducing overlength pieces and refining pieces to increase their value to both reader and author. In fact, he will often remind academic authors that their research may consist of multiple potential articles rather than being compressed into a single convoluted article.

Academics are under increasing pressure from their universities to secure external grants for research undertakings and to provide comprehensive evidence and validation for internal promotion. Both traditionally involve the submission of lengthy applications further complicated by escalating levels of competition. Given most academics are pressed for time already, editors can make a huge difference to an application’s potential success.

Kai’s overarching advice is that editors need to make the most of their existing networks – this can be as simple as letting editing colleagues or academic acquaintances know you are looking for academic editing work. Other valuable networking activities include starting conversations with academics at university-linked events or cold-calling different university departments – make sure you have your elevator pitch ready. Remember that word-of-mouth referrals and building on your experience is integral to establishing a career as an academic editor – you might need to consider some lower-paid engagements at first.

Editors NSW thanks presenter Dr Kai Jensen AE and Zoom hosts Marita Smith and Kirsty Arnold for their time.

A recording of this presentation is available to purchase and view until 12 July 2024.