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While reviewing research papers, I often find that the author's English is not very good. Considering that English is not everyone's native language, I understand their difficulties, and I recognize that they struggle (using dictionaries and translators) to get their work published at all.

That being said, I sometimes find papers that have contain English that is frankly terrible, with a few select fragments in pristine, almost Shakespearean English, using words that sometimes I didn't even know existed. When this happens, a quick Google search will occasionally reveal that these fragments are copy-pasted fragments from textbooks.

What should I do in these cases? I feel that being too harsh might come of as being mean, but I would really like to emphasize that the practice is very bad for the scientific community.

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This reminds me for asking whether native English scientists have an advantage over non-English ones. –  seteropere Dec 18 '12 at 6:10
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@seteropere I think in general there is no problem with not being a native speaker when the student reaches a certein level. A good set of brains is much harder to acquire than polishing the language of a paper. –  Paul Hiemstra Dec 18 '12 at 13:15
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At my university, we call copy-past issues "plagiarism"! –  Fuhrmanator Dec 20 '12 at 7:11
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5 Answers

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As Mikael said, copying and pasting from a textbook (or any other source), unless it's properly quoted and cited, is plagiarism. Now, it's possible that this varies a bit between fields and between cultures, but generally speaking, plagiarism is one of the most serious academic offenses, probably a step below outright fabrication of results. Well-respected tenured professors at major universities have lost their jobs and had their careers destroyed by a single instance of plagiarism. The point is, this is a very big no-no and you should treat it accordingly. You should definitely notify the editor, and see how they would like you to deal with it. I don't know exactly how that process works, whether the editor will just handle the paper themselves and let you know that your review will no longer be necessary, or whether they'll ask you to finish your review anyway and state your objections in it.

In the latter case, I would write an unequivocal recommendation against publishing the paper because of the plagiarism. Personally, I would be inclined not to even look at the scientific content of any such paper, although that may not work out in practice. But anyway, just pointing out the plagiarized parts and recommending against publication, in and of itself, is not mean. Just don't get carried away and start attacking the author. You could apply the same principle that is used at Stack Exchange, namely that it's about the behavior, not the person.


If you put aside the plagiarism, there is also the issue of sloppy English that you mentioned. In my experience, (nearly?) all reputable journals require papers to use proper spelling and grammar for standard English, or something reasonably close to it. Usually, the instructions for authors will advise non-native speakers of English to get a native speaker to check the paper for grammatical errors before submission. So it's reasonable for you to point out any such errors that you come across. Now, grammatical errors don't have to condemn a paper to oblivion the way plagiarism might, but if the grammar is bad enough, I would think it reasonable to recommend against publication in its current state. If the underlying ideas are sound, and otherwise qualified for publication, then you could recommend that the authors edit the paper to improve the grammar and resubmit it.

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I consider the demand to get a native speaker to check the paper for grammatical errors before submission unreasonable. I am no English native speaker, and who might I ask such a thing ? The two native English speaker in my department would be overwhelmed if we all asked this. –  Benoît Kloeckner Dec 19 '12 at 16:50
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(continued) For expensive commercial journals, the proper way to go would be for the journal to offer help with language during the copyediting. Up to some point, native English speakers should accept some sloppy language in exchange for the research being written in their language. The only way I can see to solve completely the language problem would be for everyone to write in her language, and have a huge amount of translators to exchange between languages. This seems not reasonable either. –  Benoît Kloeckner Dec 19 '12 at 16:56
    
With a little effort you can find plenty of people who could clean up your English. You might have to pay them but it would be the same for me if I wrote in French. What kind of image do you want to present of yourself? –  earthling Dec 22 '12 at 3:00
    
I suppose it doesn't have to be literally a native speaker, but someone with a sufficient level of English competency to proofread the paper. "Native speaker" in my answer should be taken to refer to the person's reading and writing ability and not necessarily whether they actually have been using English from birth. –  David Z Jan 29 '13 at 21:19
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This is plagiarism. You should at the VERY least point this out to the editor and suggest (s)he insist the authors get language, translation or copyediting assistance if they can't write their paper themselves.

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In the couple of cases that I have found plagiarism (and that is what has happened here). I always contact the editor directly telling him/her what I have found and that I no longer feel comfortable writing a review. This then puts the burden on the editor to make a decision of how to deal with it.

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I would see two situations here:

  • The English is so bad that you cannot properly review the paper. If you suspect that there is merit in the paper, suggest getting the language polished and encourage to resubmit. Otherwise reject the paper.
  • You can follow the story, and provide an in depth review. Just reply as you would normally, and mention polishing the language as one of the additional remarks.

Just copying without reference is just plagiarism, and should lead to rejection of the paper.

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I understand exactly what you are going through. I have seen it happen many times before. In some culture it is extremely common for students to think that it is acceptable to plagiarize in this way. However, in my experience, even when students think it is acceptable, they still know it is wrong.

You should call it out for what it is: Plagiarism. In my experience, some students only wake up to the impact of plagiarism when they are shocked into it. I've had students call me mean (and much, much worse) but I've never had a student say that I was unjustified in calling their plagiarism out. They knew what they were doing and they got caught.

I also explained to them how to "right their ship" so this did not cause future problems. In my school, the punishment is quite lenient for plagiarism - just fail (no removal, no academic probation, etc.). But, it is still expected that it is called out when it is found.

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