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Since I need a break from the reviewing...

Often in my field I review papers from researchers in Asia (reviews are not double blind) which are poorly written. By poorly written, I don't mean that the prose is not pleasing to the eye, that there are problems with how the writing flows, or that there are innocuous typos or spelling mistakes. Instead, the grammar used by the authors differs seriously from normal English, and often produces significant changes in the meaning of sentences.

Usually such papers are ultimately readable, but one has to go back and re-read sentences or paragraphs several times to infer the meaning (and this is with strong knowledge of the research area!), so I generally won't reject a paper solely for this reason. However, I would feel remiss in my duties as a reviewer if I didn't instruct the authors to improve this aspect of the paper. I'd like to provide helpful advice for the authors without just giving them a laundry list of the errors.

Typically I highlight a few places where I had significant trouble understanding what they actually meant to say, and suggest seeking a professional editor before publication.

Are these reasonable things to suggest?

What other suggestions can I make?

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Are you considering a conference with or without formal proceedings? –  Charles Morisset Feb 18 at 17:25
    
Typically with, but I think the issue of providing feedback applies equally well to conferences without. –  John Doucette Feb 18 at 18:14
    
Can I ask: is the conference proceedings an important part of the question? I.e., would be the answers be different if it were a journal publication? I ask because in my line of work relatively few papers are published in conference proceedings. –  Pete L. Clark Feb 18 at 22:58
    
Probably not an important part of the question. In fact, it only appears in the question title, so I'll change it. –  John Doucette Feb 19 at 0:04
    
@JohnDoucette: If there are no formal proceedings (which is often the case for conferences in some fields), then the paper is not really published, in which case the quality of writing alone might not be that important. –  Charles Morisset Feb 19 at 15:23

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

To comment on language is fair, to suggest improvements and even making corrections goes beyond what can be expected, depending on the degree of problems. There is of course a fine line between when something can be salvaged with a little editing and where things start to lose meaning. Many journals and publishers provide services (albeit often at a cost) for non-native speakers. What you can do is to try to help the author(s) if possible by providing examples and making minor corrections. But, it is not your job to be a service. You should state your opinion about the paper, clearly separating the scientific aspect (indicate if your think the science holds) and the language issue. It is particularly potent to state when the language obscures the scientific message. In the end it is the editor who should decide what must be done.

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I can speak with some authority in this subject, since I did my PhD in Asia.

First of all, yes, their English writing skills are sometimes real bad, which usually happens in small Universities that do not have budget for proof readers.

When I reviewed such papers, I sometimes rewrite full paragraphs for them and show them what would be expected from a well written documents, I take the time, because I know they are doing their best effort, and probably will take those suggestions at heart.

I also recommend them books, like Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, which is not perfect, but gives good pointers on how to write correctly. You know, the whole Give them a fish or teach them how to fish.

My decision ultimately is never guided by the writing, but I always note to the editor that the paper is in a stage where it needs heavy rewriting so it can hold up to the standards of publication of the Journal (I usually review for a high regarded Journal, which tends to be more picky on the grammar thing)

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[I speak from experience with math journals. As always, if things differ in your neck of the woods, I'd like to know.]

The quality of the writing of an academic paper is one of the two main things that the referee is being asked to evaluate in her determination of the suitability of the submitted paper (the other of course being the content of the paper). In mathematics the quality of the writing and the quality of the content are usually largely separate entities, although I think it is an oversimplification to regard them as totally separate (to write a math paper well requires more mathematical thought than to write it decently, which requires more thought than to write something badly but that a qualified expert can see essentially does accomplish what it sets out to do). I think that this is less true in the humanities, but I'm not fully qualified to say more than this.

The "default" for math journals is that they say that their papers should be sufficiently well written in order to be published: of course this is a nearly useless statement.

I include that vacuity to contrast it with what certain other journals do: namely explain to what extent expository considerations are weighted in with the "content" of the paper in arriving at a decision. For instance some journals say that they welcome "expository" papers. In my experience they rarely mean this; much more often what they actually mean is that it is unusually important to them that the papers be well written, and that a research paper which has fewer results but that is truly attractive in its writing may be worthy of publication. The MAA (Mathematical Association of America) journals take exposition much more seriously: for the Monthly they seem to be about equal; for Mathematics Magazine and College Math Journal, good writing seems to be more important than content. I am tempted to tell a personal story here, but I will save it for a more appropriate time. Well, except for this: I got a referee report back from the American Mathematical Monthly saying "I give this paper an A for the mathematics and a B for the writing." For any non-MAA journal that would have been a strangely worded stamp of approval, but for the Monthly it made me nervous, and I worked hard on yet another revision.

There are also some research journals which have a reputation for accepting sloppily written, but contentfully deep, papers. The one which stands out in my mind is the Asian Journal of Mathematics. It sounds bad, but in my field I get the impression that if you have proved a great result and for whatever reason can't indulge in the luxury of writing it up properly -- by properly here I mean "formally completely and correctly", not "well"! -- then AJM is the journal for you. And it sounds worse than it is: if I'm right then it's good to have journals like that, and in some ways of course they are better than the journals which publish perfectly polished, but very minor, work.

Anyway, back to your question. What to do if the writing is bad? The answer is that you should indeed report on this and try to discount the value of the paper appropriately (neither too much nor too little), according to your best understanding of the demands of the journal (or conference?). It seems quite reasonable to me to write back to the editor asking whether the journal (or the editorial group) has definite opinions on the desired writing standards. Working off the cuff, it seems reasonable to identify three levels of bad writing:

1) The prose is not pleasing, the writing doesn't flow, and so forth. In other words, the style is bad, up to the point where the paper becomes less pleasant to read but no farther.

I think that for many journals and conferences this would be a minor offense. Especially, if you are participating in an international academic scene, then really the authors are doing the academic world a great service by writing in a language that the vast majority of the contemporary academic world has learned to read. You speak particularly of Asian authors. Well, it is rather gracious of them not to write in, say, Chinese, isn't it? For this level of bad writing I think it is best to mention it but make clear that it doesn't really detract from the paper. It would be nice to offer to help out in the editing, if you want to, but it is not clear that it's your job.

2) The writing is bad enough so that it interferes with the meaning, and an expert has to work harder to read it than she would for a decently written paper.

This seems to be what you are describing. Here I think I would really ask for guidance from the editors of the journal: the worth of the paper should be downgraded for this, but by how much? A paper which one has to struggle to read but ultimately succeeds in doing something brilliant or ground-breaking is still a great paper. (And in my field, very few brilliant or ground-breaking papers are really "easy to read". At a certain point you get past the writing altogether...provided the writing lets you!)

3) The writing is so bad that a qualified expert is unsure of the meaning, either at multiple lesser points or at at least one key point.

In this case you can't certify that the content is legitimate, so you have to recommend the paper for rejection, right? You should indicate exactly why you are rejecting the paper; in many situations, a paper which is rejected for bad writing (but not obviously defective content) may only then get the attention to writing that it actually needs and then come back as an acceptable paper. When I reject a paper for bad writing (which rarely happens, but it has happened) and I suspect that the content is also not sufficient, I try to at least hint at that in the report...otherwise the danger is that everyone's time (including yours!) will be wasted by a revision which is more superficially acceptable but still defective on a deeper level.

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From your description of having to read sentences and paragraphs several times to figure out what they mean, it seems that the writing is a significant hindrance to people understanding the paper. Since a paper is only written once but (hopefully) read many times, the burden should be on the writer, rather than on the reader.

For a journal paper (and assuming that you feel it has sufficient technical strength to be accepted), advise the authors to consult a native speaker or other expert to improve the writing and advise the editor not to accept the paper until the writing is improved.

For conference papers, it's harder to know what to do, since there's only one round of reviewing. Ultimately, though, it's the PC's problem, not yours. Write your review about the technical quality of the paper, advise the authors to improve the writing and advise the PC that you found the paper hard to understand because of the quality of the writing. They can weigh up whatever factors they want to take into account when deciding which papers to accept.

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Edit the small portion (abstract or the first chapter) of the manuscript, showing the authors how it should look like.

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That would take a long time, for a whole section. And how would it help the authors make the rest of the paper look like that? –  David Richerby Feb 19 at 15:08
    
I mean, 5 - 6 statements, no more, just enough to show the difference. –  Audrius Meškauskas Feb 19 at 16:28
1  
OK but I still don't see how it helps. The authors are probably aware that their English isn't very good. If they knew how to rewrite the paper with better language, they would have done so; knowing how to rewrite a small section doesn't seem to help with the question of how to rewrite the rest. –  David Richerby Feb 19 at 17:09

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