As a freelancer, it’s important to establish good communication and healthy boundaries with clients to ensure a smooth, successful working relationship. In an ideal world, we’d all be able to fulfill every client request and meet (and exceed!) every expectation. But some boundaries are necessary and helpful. After all, no one wants to be a doormat, getting trampled on and bending over backwards for every demand. It’s important to figure out what you can live with (and what you can’t) and pick your battles carefully.

With that in mind, then, when should you absolutely push back against a client’s request? Of course, freelancers have to deal with business and financial matters, and you should have some guidelines in place for your payment terms, working hours, the work you’ve agreed to perform, and so on. But there are also ethical issues to consider—those gray areas that every freelancer must essentially navigate for themselves.

As Rich Adin wrote for An American Editor, “. . . editors have no ethical code, outside of their own moral code, to guide them as to which decision is the correct decision. This is a failure of the editing profession and does harm to our clients.” How do we know what is “right”? There really isn’t any rule to guide us. In the end, Rich concludes that trust becomes the governing factor: “I do not know how one finds an editor whose personal code of ethics matches a client’s expectations. There are so many possible ethical disagreements that it is impossible to ask about them in advance. In the end, it comes down to trust.”

“The Denver Post’s Rebellion”

Consider, for example, the Denver Post’s open denouncement of its owner, New York City hedge fund Alden Global Capital. The Post criticized Alden for laying off dedicated staff members while increasing subscription rates and still making a profit. Here, again, the issue of trust comes up: “The inevitable result is that the reduction in quality leads to a reduction of trust. So when errant politicians and public figures push back against even the most credible of reports, they find a fertile environment for doubt.” The newsroom doesn’t trust its “corporate overlords,” and readers may not trust the Post’s reporting.

It is possible that the paper will be saved after this public outcry. Clearly the staff felt—ethically, morally—that they should push back against the owner in the hope for a future return to quality journalism.

For freelance editors, though, the stakes are rarely so high, and editors may work with many different types of clients and with many different types of publications (fiction, medical texts, academic works, etc.). Are there other situations where trust can be eroded?


Although I don’t personally specialize in this area, I know editing theses and dissertations for students can be a minefield of ethical quandaries. How much do you edit? What about rewrites? How much rewriting can you do before it’s no longer really the student’s work? Is it safer to stick to making smaller changes, staying away from the structure of the manuscript?

While some editors may lay awake at night contemplating these questions, it seems that other editors are happy to profit from students willing to pay premium prices to avoid doing their own work. A quick Google search for “essay writing service” brings up more than five essay-writing sites on just the first results page alone.

Providing these services isn’t illegal, but this seems ethically wrong to me (and this is precisely why many editors don’t work with students). As this piece in The Atlantic notes: “The idea of paying someone else to do your work for you has become increasingly commonplace in our broader culture, even in the realm of writing. . . . There is no law against it.”

So what’s the problem? The problem is that willingly writing (and then selling) a wholesale essay is a disservice to the entire editing profession. It erodes trust between students and professors and causes editors to lose respect for their colleagues. The public may lose faith in the institutions these students attend, and potential clients may lose respect for the editing profession as well.

And what if a student approaches you asking you for these services? Do you report the student to the school? Do you turn down the job and say nothing?

Thankfully there is some guidance for those editors who wish to provide editorial services to students without completely rewriting a paper or being asked to write one from scratch. The Editors’ Association of Canada has developed guidelines that specifically address how to ethically edit theses and dissertations. I shudder to think how difficult this specialization must be, so I’m very glad these are available.


It should be pretty straightforward (I would hope) that if you come across plagiarized work while editing, you should stop immediately and address it with the author or with the project manager. So maybe this isn’t quite so much an ethical quandary (it should be obvious that plagiarism is a big no-no) but a question of how to address this problem. It’s best to approach the issue calmly and tactfully and to not assume the worst. It’s possible that the writer didn’t intentionally plagiarize the text or perhaps misattributed a quotation.

This situation also ultimately comes down to trust: Can the editor assume in good faith that the author has not intentionally plagiarized their work? Can the reader trust what is written?

Until a definitive ethical code of conduct is established for freelance editors, it seems we’re on our own. It’s up to each individual editor to deal with the sticky issues of editing student work and dealing with plagiarism. I agree with Iva Cheung’s overall sentiment: “. . . be professional: keep your promises, be honest and transparent, and flag problems early.”

Readers, what are some other areas that may present ethical or moral dilemmas? How should these be addressed?

2 thoughts to “Ethics in Editing: When Should You Push Back with a Client?

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