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When the language distracts from the science: Reviewing, NES, and NoNES

Training in academia is often trial-by-fire, and learning how to review manuscripts is no exception. Because you’re technically not allowed to share manuscripts you’re reviewing with others, it can be especially tricky to learn how to do them (I do know some PI’s who share manuscripts with their grad students as a formal training exercise). Usually, you’ve read your own reviews before you have to write them, which is helpful. For me, the trickiest aspect of reviewing was not complicated methods, or figuring out how not to be a pit bull reviewer. Instead, I’ve struggled with what to do when I get a manuscript where I find myself paying more attention to the writing than the science.

If you’ve reviewed long, you’ve probably been assigned one of these. The sentences are often awkwardly phrased to the point of being distracting, and sections often read as though they were written by completely different people (often, I find that some paragraphs will be perfect, and others incomprehensible, which I think is really irresponsible on the part of co-authors who clearly wrote the well-edited sections but couldn’t be bothered to assist with the rest of the manuscript). Sometimes, the manuscripts unnecessarily aggressive language or overly confident statements with no supporting references. Often (though by no means always), these papers are written by non-native English speakers. Native English speakers (NES) can be guilty of all of the above as well, but I’d like to focus on non-native English speakers (NoNES) folks for the purposes of this post..

In many Twitter discussions, I’ve run across a mix of opinions on what to do when you have a poorly written NoNES article. Some are of the opinion that we should edit these manuscripts, as a professional courtesy– or even that it’s our job as reviewers. Others point out that we’re not copyeditors, but should focus on the science; journal guidelines usually mention something about what to do when you’re an NoNES scholar submitting a paper, like using one of a number of third-party editing services that specialize in English language editing.

Ideally, NoNES should find a colleague or friend who is a NES speaker with excellent writings skills to give a friendly review– I’ve done this, and have found it to be a nice compromise. As an article reviewer, if a paper is otherwise excellent but suffers from a need for thorough copy-editing, I may put in the work of revising. If the paper suffers from other flaws, I’ll typically make a comment to the effect of “This paper requires extensive copy-editing, as in this paragraph,” and then demonstrate with heavy edits as an example.

I’ve had ESL colleagues bemoan this practice, however, especially when examples aren’t present. “Awkward wording, rephrase” can be incredibly unhelpful without guidance as to how to rephrase. Additionally, as this TREE paper points out, publishing in the sciences is “monolithically dominated by English,” and NES speakers could be more supportive and compassionate of their NoNES colleagues, particularly given the fact that we’re in a position of privilege when it comes to language and publishing. Still, most of us aren’t trained copyeditors, and a reviewer may not necessarily be a great writer. I think that the ideal situation would be to use a professional editor of you’ve got access to the funds, or to go with a friendly reviewer.

What’s your policy when a NoNES manuscript arrives in your inbox? If you’re an NoNES , what are your thoughts or experiences about the revision process? If you’re an editor, what would you like to see from your authors and reviewers?

Categories: Academia Commentary Professional Development Tips & Tricks

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Jacquelyn Gill

10 replies

  1. This morning I rejected a manuscript after reading page 1, solely due to poor grammar from NoNES. In my rejection note, I told editor I would either volunteer to assist the authors with a grammatical & clarity edit, or peer review the manuscript _after_ the authors clean up the grammar. But not both.

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  2. (First, full disclosure- I run a manuscript editing and writing consulting company!)
    I don’t think the majority of reviewers or journal editors have the time for or interest in copyediting. It’s really important that papers are easily comprehensible, and the problem is that it’s currently no one’s explicit job to make sure that’s true. (I feel that way about both NES and non-NES papers, although the problems for clarity in each arise differently.)

    As you allude to, NES scientists aren’t exactly renowned for their great writing skills. I think it’s really a more efficient use of everyone’s time to match the domain of expertise with the work- reviewers should be evaluating the science, and language professionals should help with the writing. In my experience, it’s not the cost that prevents people from hiring an editor, it’s the view that their writing is fine. That’s the part that reviewers and editors can help with- making scientists aware that they need help.

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  3. I don’t see it as my job to focus on copy-editing when reviewing papers. I focus on the ideas, the technical merit, etc. … I try very hard to ‘look through’ poor English and evaluate the science. If there’s good stuff there then I will communicate that to the editors. When I do spend time on grammar and English is with NoNESs grad students in my classes. This is a venue where I put that time/effort in to helping them improve.

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  4. I think it is tough when you get a paper that the data is really interesting and you’d like to see published but the language makes it difficult to read. Jeremy’s policy seems sound on this front. There just isn’t the time to both review the science and the language for every review. Given that, I tend to try to give concrete examples where there are problems. As the review requests go up, my ability to help out with language problems has definitely diminished. I’m happy when someone catches a small error for me, so I add those to my reviews if I catch them. The hardest thing for me is when you aren’t certain about the science of the paper because the language is too difficult to determine what they actually did. I like the solution of rejecting with correcting the grammar before resubmission.

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  5. This is a very interesting discussion. I feel that if an author submits a manuscript to an English-language journal or conference, the writing should be at a level where extensive copy-editing should not be required – and as a reviewer, I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to do that (although if you do, that is very generous). If there are occasional grammar problems, I will point those out, but if there are multiple recurrent problems that are so distracting or confusing that information is being lost, I will point those out *and* suggest that the manuscript be reviewed by another reader before it is resubmitted.

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  6. Here’s my approach, as both editor and author. Just my two cents, don’t mean to imply that anyone else is wrong to take a different approach.

    If there are only a few grammatical errors, I note them and correct them.

    If the grammatical problems are frequent but minor, meaning that they don’t much affect the reader’s ability to understand the ms, then I note the issue and suggest editing by a native English speaker. But I also note that the issue is minor, and shouldn’t get in the way of the ms being accepted.

    If the grammatical problems are mostly minor, but are serious in one or two places, I suggest corrections to the serious problems based on my best guess as to what the author meant, and insist that the problematic passages be clarified before acceptance.

    If there are numerous, serious grammatical problems that inhibit understanding of large chunks of the ms, I recommend that the ms be rejected, and the grammatical problems corrected before resubmission.

    So I never take the time to copyedit myself, except when serious grammatical problems are rare. That’s for two main reasons. First, many journals quite explicitly do not expect editors and referees to copyedit the work of native English speakers. Second, it would greatly increase the time required to perform the review, which is something that already takes me several hours, minimum–I take reviewing very seriously.

    I take exactly the same approach to editing the writing of native English speakers. It’s of course much rarer for me to receive a ms from a native English speaker with numerous serious grammatical problems. But if I do get such an ms, I recommend rejection, with grammatical problems to be corrected before resubmission.

    As for native English speakers being in a position of privilege when it comes to scientific publishing, yes we are. But the typical native English speaking scientist also is in a position of privilege in all sorts of ways. Further, some native English speaking scientists are in positions of greater privilege than others. I myself was very fortunate to be born as a white male to a well-off American family, for instance. Accidents of birth absolutely are a hugely important direct and indirect determinant of who can reasonably expect to be able to publish a paper in a peer-reviewed English-language scientific journal. As a reviewer or editor, it’s my job to be fair, which means holding all authors to the same standards. It’s not my job to correct for accidents of birth that directly or indirectly affected the author’s ability to produce a ms that meets the standards of the journal, and I mostly can’t do so anyway.

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    1. Thanks very much for your comment, Jeremy– I was rather hoping you’d respond. I agree with just about everything you’ve said here, with the exception that I do think we -can- use our privilege to help others, which can be important if we want a more diverse field. However, I think that the better use for this is not to do the copy-editing as formal reviewers or editors for the journal, but as friendly reviewers.

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      1. Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that people in a privileged position in science can’t or shouldn’t ever help out others who are less privileged! I just meant my remarks in the very specific context of “do reviewers and editors have an obligation to help out NoNES by copyediting their mss?”

        Re: doing friendly reviews for others on an informal basis, I think it’s great that you do it. It’s something I rarely do myself for anyone (native speaker or not), as it’s a quite a big favor. For the same reason, I don’t routinely ask for informal reviews, even from close friends. I only do so if I have some special reason for wanting one, like I’m planning to submit to Science or something so everything about the ms needs to be perfect.

        And I’m flattered that you were hoping for a comment from me. I sometimes wonder if the more common reaction to my comments isn’t more like “Oh good, Jeremy Fox thinks we can’t read enough of his opinions on his own blog.” 🙂

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    2. Understood! And no, your comments (and posts) are always welcome– especially because, in this case, your experience as an editor is very welcome. I think a lot of new reviewers are unclear on what the expectations are when it comes to language in manuscripts. I’ve only reviewed about ten papers at this point, but more than half of them fall in the “NoNES” category (!).

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