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The situation: we have many subjectively understandable articles in English. But they will never be published publicly in any peer-reviewed scientific journals. Why?

Some reviewers seem to be very sensitive about the quylity of English. This all isn't about the fields where it is a must, of course. Sometimes, it seems that the reviewers are reacting to foreign names (Chinese, for example), not to a relative language quality. In a particular case, I saw an "awful English " rejection for papers proofread by licensed native translators and editors. Don't read the latest as a point, proof or blame. It's a subjective experience, not with one of our articles, about some U.S. journals, taken as an illustration.

In academia - institutes are willing to pay editors and translators for well-known reasons. What is outside? Most people outside of academia prefer not to pay that much (Elsevier's 2K Euro for average 9K words) for publishing their own work. It can be too much even for organizations (low budgeted theoretical math, etc.) not saying about small groups aren't making this for profit or "3rd world".

Is there an inexpensive way for those whose English isn't ideal?

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4 Answers 4

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You don't have good options. Either get good at English, or get help from people who are already good at English. The nature of scientific writing makes it difficult for non-specialists to check your English well, which is why copyediting companies often offer to match your paper with specialists in your field, which in turn makes it expensive because there aren't many specialists around who are willing to do this kind of work.

However, the price you quote - 2k EUR for a 9k word paper - seems very high. Here's a quote by Editage which comes in at $0.09 per word. That's $810 for a 9k word paper. The editing comes with a guarantee that if your paper is rejected due to English issues, they will do more copyediting on it for free. (I am not affiliated with Editage.)

Of course, you could argue that $810 is still pretty expensive, but I freelanced for one of these copyediting companies in the past and I can tell you that the copyeditors tend to be unhappy with the low pay. The papers that they are assigned tend to be awfully written and takes a serious amount of work to fix to the point where the copyeditor is almost an author. It's dull, mind-numbing work that's done purely for the sake of the money, especially since the paper is usually not very interesting.

So when you write

It can be too much even for organizations (low budgeted theoretical math, etc.) not saying about small groups aren't making this for profit or "3rd world".

Keep in mind that everyone in the process thinks they should be paid more.

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Please excuse me for the very long text, but I feel that this problem needs to be discussed with clarity and nuance, in order to avoid offending anyone. I am worried about being downvoted for writing so much, but I am sincerely trying to help anyone who is facing the same frustrations as the OP.

This is a topic that hits close to home, as I have been deeply involved in this issue for many, many years. It is also a very sensitive topic that leads people to think that they are being discriminated on a regular basis. To be clear, I do agree that there are reviewers who unfairly reject papers based on things such as perceived language and foreign names.

However, from my long experience, I think that these bad reviewers do not represent the majority. In most cases, it is correct to say that the quality of English writing in academic papers is often insufficient, even when the papers were proof-checked by a native speaker. I will carefully explain the reasons below and offer some suggestions for addressing the problem. But first, I think that I need to give some brief explanations about my personal background, so that people understand where I'm coming from, and to make it clear that my aim in writing this text is to help, not to berate non-English native speakers.

I was not born (and never worked) in an Anglophone country, and have no native English speakers in my family, and my real name could never possibly be mistaken for that of an English speaker. Until the age of 8, I had no meaningful exposure to English language as well. However, my parents saw fit to put me in weekly English classes in a language school, and I ended up loving the language so much that I spent considerable amounts of time not just consuming media and various types of literature in English, but also writing and speaking extensively in English. I have published a number of papers in English books and journals, and done many presentations at academic conferences in the United States and the UK. Not once has my writing been criticized for being poor; on the contrary, I have been repeatedly commended and praised for the quality of the writing and speaking. I do not write this to brag in any way, but just to encourage others that they too can keep improving in their English communication skills, if they remain strongly committed to it.

I also loved other languages besides English, and so I've spent years working in academic institutions in East Asian countries such as Korea, China and Japan. I have published papers in Chinese and Japanese journals, and therefore I know very well how difficult it is to write an academic paper in a language that is completely different from your native language. During this process, I edited English papers written by my East Asian colleagues many times, and they also edited the papers that I wrote in East Asian languages. All of us learned a great deal from these experiences.

Having explained my personal background and experience, allow me to describe the key problems regarding writing papers in English.

  1. It is a fact that the quality of English education in most East Asian countries is still not good, despite the amounts of money being thrown by governments at this issue. It is also a fact that when undergraduate students start their first year of study at East Asian universities, they are deeply unprepared for writing academic papers in English. The level of English that they were taught in high school is barely enough to write a personal blog, much less an academic paper.
  2. If I am to be blatantly honest, everyone is to blame for this situation (both schools and students). Most teachers of English in pre-university education in East Asia have very poor training, and have low motivation to improve their students' skills. In the end, the only thing they care about is teaching the basic skills necessary to pass the exams. The English textbooks barely go beyond teaching simple sentences or short paragraphs. Therefore, at the end of high school students have had almost no exposure/training at all with long-form texts.
  3. In regards to the students, they are often over-optimistic about their English communication abilities, because of getting decent scores at high school English exams. I have seen these exams and I can affirm that the level of English required to pass these exams is quite inferior to that needed to write a decent academic paper. They almost have never tried to paraphrase anything in English, and paraphrasing is an absolutely crucial skill for successfully writing papers. This is one key reason why texts written by East Asian university students and faculty are often flagged by plagiarism software for having sentences too similar to those of other papers. Argumentation skills and critique of previous literature are also insufficiently explored in high-school East Asian education.
  4. To make things worse, teenage students cannot predict the future; they do not realize that in their future years at university, they might have to write academic papers in English. Therefore, during their teen years, they spend their free time consuming English media such as dramas, comedies, or animation shows, instead of learning English from political debates, documentaries, academic lectures, long-form discussions about difficult topics, etc. The average level of English displayed in Hollywood media is completely inadequate for helping students write academic papers. Furthermore, learning too much English from such entertainment sources will instill very bad language habits that will be difficult to unlearn in the future.

One more thing that must be made clear, is that even native English speakers have a hard time writing good-quality texts. East Asian students often think that native speakers have an easy time writing the papers. In fact, most native speakers will have to rewrite their texts a few times before having a paper that is good for a well-reputed journal. Even I usually rewrite my English papers 7 to 8 times before being satisfied with the results. All of my academic colleagues are just as diligent with their writing: before submitting their papers, they will ask input from as many people as possible, and spend a lot of time rewriting their texts until everything is clear.

The same thing applies for papers written in Chinese, Korean or Japanese. My East Asian colleagues don't just write something and immediately submit the paper; they also have to rewrite the texts until their colleagues and supervisors are satisfied. I thought my Chinese and Japanese skills were good until I had to write a paper for the first time... My colleagues had to rewrite almost every sentence from zero until it had a reasonable quality for being submitted to a journal. Just like English journals, well-reputed East Asian journals will also reject papers if the quality of writing is not good enough. In fact, from my experience, they are even more strict about quality of writing than many English journals. The requirements for English text quality vary from field to field. Journals in fields such as Urban management, Tourism Policies, Geography, Education, Engineering, Remote Sensing, Cultural Heritage Studies, etc. tend to be less demanding in terms of English quality, whereas fields such as Linguistics or Medical Sciences will be much less tolerant of mistakes.

As a result of all of these things that I just described, the quality of English academic writing by non-native university students is already very poor to begin with. Even though a non-native university student may claim that they put all of their effort into writing an academic English text, the fact is that the text has so many problems to begin with, that it is often impossible to fix the problems without completely rewriting almost every sentence. Of course, this creates a huge problem regarding who is the author of the paper (the student, or the editor?).

Now, let us look at the problem of the English proof-reading industry. Let's ignore the fact that most companies are scams employing non-native undergrads under low paying conditions. Let's just focus on those companies that actually employ skilled English writers, and therefore charge insanely high prices. In order to write a successful academic paper, it is not enough to have an editor who can write correct English, they also need to have at least an above-average knowledge of your academic field. Many times, I was approached by colleagues who had had their papers edited by native speakers. It was clear from reading the first paragraphs that these editors had no expertise in the academic field, because they misinterpreted my colleagues' intended meaning, and wrote for example sentences that contradict established knowledge in the academic field.

In the first time that I edited an English paper for a colleague of mine, I was still very young, and too scared to offend my colleague. There were many problems with text structure, how the various sentences link with each other, repetitive use of the same words, and it had many redundant statements. Even though it was necessary to rewrite all of it, I did not want to my colleague to be angry with me for changing everything. I know this, because I've seen some colleagues who are sensitive, and believe they have a perfectly reasonable command of English; they would get upset when I needed to rewrite a whole sentence that they thought was perfectly fine. I often had to explain in detail the reasons for changing each sentence, which was very exhausting for me.

In the case of this first paper, I did only the minimum changes necessary to make each sentence grammatical, and explained this situation to him. He sent the paper to the journal, and it was almost rejected, but it was changed to a request for a revision. There was a warning saying that unless there were significant improvements to the text's quality, the paper would be rejected. Therefore, in order for the English text to be publishable, I asked for my colleague's understanding and permission, and extensively rewrote the text from zero. The revised paper was accepted and published. As a thank you, the colleague agreed to help rewrite my texts written in East Asian languages. Technically speaking, I made such profound modifications to the whole text and contents that I should have been considered a co-author. Indeed, I was offered to be a co-author numerous times, but I always rejected such requests, because I was doing this as a friend, not for obtaining personal gains. (Note that this whole answer is not revised or rewritten, and may contain small mistakes!)

The key point of this long text is that native-speaking editors do not have the authority to completely rewrite a text from the bottom up. Even if you pay a lot of money to these editing companies, the editors can hardly do more than fix basic grammatical mistakes, and highlight text passages that are problematic. If they start to severely rewrite the text, then the editors must be considered at least co-authors, if not first authors. This is the main reason why papers edited by native speakers will often be rejected by major journals due to poor text quality. The reason is that there are much deeper problems with the text as a whole, beyond just fixing the basic grammar of each sentence, and the editor is not authorized to fix such problems (at least, not without rewriting the whole thing).

The harsh, cruel reality is that non-native English speakers will have to do at least 3-4 times the amount of work done by a native speaker in order to get a decent quality text suitable for a good journal. I know this, because I had to undergo an insane amount of work, suffering and rewriting in order to write my papers in East Asian languages and get them published in good East Asian journals.

Now, what can be done about this situation? There is no perfect solution, except lots of hard work, and lots of exposure to English academic papers and lots of time spent writing. Trust me, I am not asking people to master high-level prose; a lot of work and practice is necessary just for writing average-level academic texts. the fact is that students were exposed to all sorts of inappropriate English during their teen years, and now they have to suffer a lot to make up for it. In one of the universities that I worked in China, the whole faculty of Pharmaceutical Studies was restructured around English teaching. The appointed dean of the faculty is a native English scientist, and every single thing inside that faculty is conducted in English (classes, materials, etc.). This is a very extreme measure, but the fact is that after doing this, both Chinese students and faculty members started having much more success in getting papers published in English journals. What else can be done by each student in order to improve their papers?

  1. Focus all of your energies and time on SPEAKING and WRITING. Most students only read and listen passively to English materials, and these skills are not enough for doing public presentations or writing papers. Find some room or place where you can speak things out loud. Get a textbook that teaches academic English, and read the texts and sentences with a loud voice, not just with your mind. Also spend as much time as you can trying to write your own thoughts and scientific ideas in English, for example in a blog or on your computer.
  2. Use the method of "shadowing" to improve your English diction and pronunciation. Go to Youtube, search some TED presentations related to your research topic (or any topic that you are interested in), and start shadowing, first at slow speed, then at faster speeds. If you don't know what "shadowing" is, there are many Youtube videos discussing the method. Doing "shadowing" is extremely tiring, even for just 3 minutes. But if you are persistent, and keep doing a little bit every day, after 5 or 6 months you will start to notice meaningful improvements in your overall language skills. Record your own voice, and see how close your pronunciation is to that of the native speaker in the TED presentation.
  3. Use Google's search function tools and Google Books to double-check if your English sentences are grammatical or awkward. Let's look for example at the OP's sentence: "Don't read the latest as a point, proof or blame. It's a subjective experience, not with one of our articles, about some U.S. journals, taken as an illustration." I would break this sentence down into smaller pieces, and separately check each of them on Google. This can be achieved by using double quotes (""), and the asterisk (*) wildcard . On Google Search (or Google Books), I would put for example "Don't read the latest as a point". If Google says there are no matches, or recommends a different sentence, then you need to fix something. You can search Google for "Don't read the latest as *" and it will search for different sentences that use this kind of language. Or, search for "Don't read the * as a proof", and see what kind of results you get. If you get good matches in Google Books or Google Scholar, then you can get a better understanding of whether the sentence works or not. Of course, this is extremely time-consuming, but after you do this for a while it will become much easier to write papers. You only need to make this huge effort for your first two or 3 papers, then everything will become much easier.
  4. If you still have doubts about certain sentences, use Stack Exchange, and other forums where people ask questions about how to write academic English.
  5. Before submitting a paper to a certain journal, ALWAYS download at least 5 or 6 papers previously published by that journal, which are similar to your research topic. Take LOTS of notes about how those papers organize the information, how they explain their arguments, how endnotes and bibliography are written, etc. This will help you to tailor your paper in order to better match the objectives of the journal.
  6. Get as many comments from colleagues and profs about the clarity of the text structure and overall ideas. Rewrite the text until the overall structure is clear, and the arguments flow smoothly from sentence to sentence. My academic colleagues usually ask 15-20 friends to give comments about their papers, and usually about 5 of them will send very useful comments.
  7. There are many Youtube channels that teach about paraphrasing and how to write academic English. Be sure to check them out, and take many notes! For example, check the Youtube channel "English with Beth B".
  8. If you have a native English-speaking friend, ask them to fix your text, and tell them to not be afraid of rewriting large sections if necessary. If you can, pay them some small cash, or help them in any way you can (at least give them a thank you in the Acknowledgements section).
  9. At the end of this whole process, you can finally pay a professional editing company to proofread your text. If the overall text structure and ideas are well-organized, then the editor can safely make small fixes to the grammar, and tighten up the text, and the paper has a good chance of being accepted by the journal with minor revisions.

If you really commit yourself to doing these things for one year, then you will see some dramatic improvements in your skills. Remember, the beginning is insanely hard, but the benefits of training yourself will last for the rest of your life.

No matter what, do not become discouraged if you are struggling to produce English papers. Keep fighting and striving to improve yourself. Good Luck!

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    "I am worried about being downvoted for writing so much," As you should be. Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 7:47
  • Point (humbly) taken. I will be more cautious in the future.
    – djohn
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 8:16
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Discrimination by peer reviewers based on people's perceived language does happen. It's happened to me.

There are no translation or editing services which are both cheap and good. Your best option is to get someone else to pay the bill. Find a generous colleague who is good at Academic English and also good at the topic of your paper, and ask them to help. Then your colleague's employer will be paying the bill.

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There are a few issues here, so I'll give some suggestions for each. I'll address your specific situation regarding writing in English, but the same general advice applies regardless of the language of a paper/journal.


Discrimination on the basis of percieved name-origin: I would be highly surprised if there is any substantial discrimination of this kind in academic review. Perhaps others have anecdotally seen it, but I've never previously heard of such a thing occurring in present academia. Blind review of papers removes the name of the author from consideration in the first place, and even when the review process is not blinded, in most fields the names on existing published papers (which you are often citing in your research anyway) run the gamut over ever race and ethincity of people there is. It would be extremely strange if a reviewer was to discriminate on this basis.

It is unclear from your post what causes you to believe that this has occurred. (Is it really impossible that a "licensed translator" could have awful English, leading a paper to be validly rejected on that basis?) As I have said, I would be surprised if this is occurring in any substantial magnitude. In any case, if you're worried about this, a possible solution is for authors to target publications that use a blinded review system.


Trying to get papers with low-quality English published: I actually think it's really important that academic journals hold the line on the standard of written communication they expect. Clear writing and proper use of the English language is important, even when presenting technical papers. So if reviewers are very sensitive about the quality of English, good on them. Now, this is obviously something that creates a barrier for researchers who have low-quality English-writing skills, but that is not substantively different from the barriers facing researchers who have other deficiencies in their academic skills.

In terms of a solution, in the absence of a funded translator I see three inexpensive options: (1) the author could consider their English-language deficiency as a deficiency in necessary academic skills and work to improve it (i.e., learn to write better); (2) the author could try to find a co-author with good English-writing skills who can take on the task of revising the paper up to a good standard of writing; or (3) the author could seek assistance from an "academic study skills" centre at their university (most universities have something like this to help students or researchers whose language skills are poor).

The latter two methods are obviously much simpler in the short-term, and getting a co-author ensures that there is ample help, but it then requires sharing credit more on the academic work. If the underlying substance of a paper is good then it should be fairly easy to find a co-author for a rewrite, since rewriting a paper more clearly is not a lot of work relative to the substantive work of the research itself.

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  • "It would be extremely strange if a reviewer was to discriminate on this basis." Discrimination is both extremely strange and extremely common. It is good to know about unconscious bias. Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 7:40
  • "proper use of the English language is important," This is not the proper way to talk about the difference between Academic English and various other dialects of English. Each local dialect is proper in the region where it is widely used. There are no "improper" dialects. People just use other dialects on occasions when they are expected to use Academic English. Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 7:44
  • Or they just write badly. That also exists.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 8:50
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    Re name-origin discrimination, I don't believe you --- discrimination on that basis is certainly not extremely common (speculative theories of unconscious bias notwithstanding).
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 8:50
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    @Ben I would politely direct you to numerous studies on the name-origin discrimination bias that has been demonstrated for decades in the US. It is indeed more common than you might think. This occurs across both gender and ethnicity. Examples: National Bureau of Economic Research: nber.org/digest/sep03/employers-replies-racial-names; others: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597806000690; link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10755-014-9313-4;
    – bashity
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 16:43

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