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

By on May 14, 2013Repost, for more article visit http://contemplativemammoth.wordpress.com

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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?

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