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I am pretty sure that anyone who has spent some time reading academic papers have come across quite a few "lemons" among them, with bad grammar, strange word choices and incoherent sentences. Such papers are always a chore to read, even if the topic is interesting and the research is good, and I have found myself throwing away papers just because they are so awful to read.

The strange thing is that these papers have been peer reviewed and are published in reputable journals. But still they are often near unreadable because of bad language. Why is this the case? Why isn't bad language picked up and corrected when peer review is done? I understand that a lot of these academics don't have English as their first language, but publishing a paper that reads like it was translated from Chinese to English with Google Translate and a thesaurus is not a good way to publish your research.

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    I don't think there's a black and white here. As a reviewer, I tend to go easy on non-native English authors and try to give a list of typos and sentences to rephrase. If the technical content is good and the paper is readable, I can certainly forgive even frequent minor typos. What really p*sses me off, however, is when I have to review papers with poor English written with co-authors that are clearly native English speakers (i.e., "free-riders" that couldn't be bothered to improve the writing of their own paper). Grr.
    – badroit
    Jan 10, 2014 at 13:32
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    I found this gem in another answer: "the language of science is bad English" academia.stackexchange.com/questions/14921/… Jan 10, 2014 at 13:39
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    On the most recent paper I reviewed, the review form had a checkbox for "needs English language corrections". I think English language corrections should be done by English language professionals, not by other scientists. There are plenty of companies that can correct academic English.
    – gerrit
    Jan 10, 2014 at 20:53
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    I tend to go easy on non-native English authors — Me too, if they're students. But I tend to be fairly harsh with tenured authors. After a while, not being a native speaker isn't a sufficient excuse; lots of non-native English speakers write beautiful English.
    – JeffE
    Jan 11, 2014 at 7:07
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    Why does everyone here assume that it's the reviewers' job to correct English mistakes? We should blame the journals and their "added value" here. Jan 11, 2014 at 7:37

8 Answers 8

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I like V. Rossetto's answer (+1), but I think the level of cynicism it contains is more appropriate as an answer for why bad papers are published (to which I would add that there is now a glut of mediocre venues looking for content ... everyone wants to be editor or co-organiser of something; and I would also add that, unfortunately, authoring and peer-review is still done by humans).

But as for badly written ... I feel a little balance is needed. In particular, I feel it's important to caution against a common hyper-sensitivity to language problems in publications.

The phrase "badly-written" is subjective. Sure, the readability of the paper is an important aspect of the quality of the paper, and there is some minimum level of language quality that is a prerequisite, but that level can be artificially high for some academics.

The majority of research is published in English by non-native speakers. Many papers are primarily authored by students in their 20's/30's who might be quite new to English and to writing scientific works. Even certain native English speakers will struggle to structure a paper in such a way that it reads well (sometimes because they are still of the belief that things have to be complicated and difficult before they can be published, so they write in a complicated and difficult way).

As an example of hypersensitivity, I am a native English speaker and for a journal paper I was primary author of, I once had a reviewer complain that the paper was poorly written. His/her main complaint was that we were confusing the semantics of "that" vs. "which" in the paper, saying that mixing the two up is not up to the formal standard of English required for journals. Eventually I did actually manage to stop laughing, but as I picked myself up from the floor, I realised I'd have to "correct" it for the revision. Three hours of Ctrl+F'ing "that/which" in a 40 page journal paper (and even worse, fixing the resulting bad boxes and widows again) wiped the smile off my face.

I also find that students new to reviewing, particularly non-native speakers, tend to expect a very high standard of writing. For example, I assigned a workshop review to a student once that wanted to reject the paper, primarily due to having "several typos". These would take 5 minutes to fix and didn't affect the paper at all. I asked the student if he had had any problem reading the paper? He said he hadn't. Did he learn something from the paper? Well yes, X, Y and Z. Why is he rejecting the paper? Necessary has two 's's.

Yes, the quality of writing often sucks in published works, but I don't believe that a paper should be automatically rejected just because it could be labelled as "badly written".

The goal is to communicate ideas with good science/maths, not to give an exposition of English grammar and phrasing. The original versions of many important publications were almost indecipherable in their writing. Even if an idea is written in such a way that you have to spend a few more hours to understand it, the idea itself might influence you and many other people in a positive way for many years.

Yes such influential papers are rare, but there are many shades of grey in between black and white.

And think of all the raw brain-power we will be missing out on if we perpetuate a culture that implicitly discourages non-English speakers from publishing!


In any case, for journals, I would tend to blame poor copy-editing and typesetting from the publishers. Most journals employ professional technical writers whose job is to avoid this situation. (I don't envy them their job, but still.)

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    I agree that my answer was cynical, yours is quite empathic for the non-native English speakers. +1 for this more optimistic viewpoint.
    – Tom-Tom
    Jan 10, 2014 at 14:59
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    This is a very important addendum to V.Rossetto's answer, because, frankly, we don't WANT to reject papers just because of problems of presentation and writing.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 10, 2014 at 15:10
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    I might also note that an alternative, people only publishing in their native tongue with only the finest grammar and word choice, would be vastly worse for us native English speakers than having to wade through some less than poetic prose. Native English speakers are exceedingly lucky in coming to the table with a skill nearing mastery level, in a language that by total happen-stance turned out to the lingua franca of academics. Papers could all still have to be written in Latin, or...French. Please don't make me learn Russian because word choice miss sometimes!
    – BrianH
    Jan 10, 2014 at 17:25
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    "Three hours of Ctrl-Fing"? Find a nearby CS student and get them to use emacs on it!
    – rlms
    Jan 10, 2014 at 21:05
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    Is someone claiming there's an editor whose search-and-replace can automatically replace only instances where "that" is incorrect? (In fact, I believe that WordPro and Word grammar check are almost there, but not simple find-replace)
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 11, 2014 at 21:59
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To add something not contained in any of the existing answers: in some fields, language errors are more prone to create important misunderstanding in the mind of the reader. For instance, in mathematics, even seemingly minor grammatical changes to the statement of a theorem will often drastically change its meaning. My (purely anecdotal) sense is that in such fields, badly written papers rarely get through peer review at reputable journals. But I'm sure someone will disagree, since these terms are subjective.

Of course, plenty of badly written mathematical papers get through peer-review in disreputable journals. The result can be complete gibberish. For example, see this entertaining abstract.

Finally, I respect badroit's answer, but I still get annoyed when I'm asked to spend hours reviewing a paper and I find that the authors didn't even take a minute to run spell-check. That's rude, to say the least.

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  • I agree on spellchecking. In defense of authors, I've learned to spellcheck LaTeX (without spellchecking the commands) using a terminal or Emacs, but that seems not entirely trivial. Sep 12, 2016 at 1:50
  • Might be worth noting that the abstract you linked is by SCIRP, which was on Beall's list when it was discontinued.
    – Allure
    Aug 1, 2018 at 6:04
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Badly written papers can still serve the interests of

  • the editors and the authors, if it concerns a hot topic (or considered as such), the article will potentially be cited by others even if they do not read it at all;
  • the editors, if they have difficulties to find enough good papers to fill the next issue. They need to show their employers they are working;
  • the referees, if they are cited in the references;
  • the scientific editors, if they have conflicting interests (like being at the same time head of a university's department);
  • the list does not stop here (please edit).

These are no scientific reasons, but they are dictated by the "numbers" and these numbers play a significant role for researchers applying to a position, a grant or a promotion.

It can also be that the authors made a really good discovery, want to publish to avoid being spotted, but prefer to keep their "advance". So they publish intentionally in a way that is difficult to read. This reason is rare in my opinion, but I've heard of a case. In this situation, maybe it is a deal between the editor and the author.

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    I would add that "Badly written papers can still serve the interests of" ... the journal and science itself, if the scientific content is better than the writing.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 10, 2014 at 15:11
  • @xLeitix. Good point (+1). Feel free to edit the answer if you wish.
    – Tom-Tom
    Jan 10, 2014 at 15:13
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    If only we could edit the published papers ...
    – SamB
    Jan 10, 2014 at 18:43
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    @SamB lost count on how many times I thought that. WikiDemia.
    – kaoD
    Jan 10, 2014 at 23:38
  • "want to publish to avoid being spotted", fully agreed, especially in the cases of patents!
    – Peter Teoh
    Jan 11, 2014 at 1:53
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It's simply about saving money. Until the 1990s, publishers of academic books and journals employed copy editors to put text into readable form. This, not least, was because the typesetter had to input text by hand, character by character, into the machine. Typesetters, although as capable as anyone else of making unintended errors, had high professional standards, and would find it painful to deliberately embody obvious errors into their work. Since typesetters had to read the material, it was necessary at least to correct errors that would make their life hard. Moreover, the publisher, commissioning editor, copy editor, and typesetter had a shared culture of seeking high quality for the customer who ultimately provided their living: the intended reader.

With the advent of computerization, the expensive copy editor and typesetter could be cut out. The author is instructed to follow the style file, and the editorial job is now principally to check that this has been done---at least well enough for the output to appear at a glance to conform in style to the publisher's standards. Driving this compression, in the same period, were four other strong trends: the expansion of higher education; the increasing specialization of academic works; the establishment of English as the principal medium of publication for authors who are not native speakers of that language; and the measurement of academics' worth by the quantity of their published output. These trends all put pressure on publishers to produce a great multiplicity of titles. With money available to buy books constrained by general economic growth, and with libraries not having the highest priority in university spending, this profusion of titles could only be printed, at affordable prices for the end user, by sacrificing quality to cut costs.

Of course, this is an oversimplified description of what has happened diversely in hundreds of publishing houses over the past 25 years or so. It applies particularly to titles with a low print run (say 500 copies), where the costs of copy-editing and typesetting are hard to recover from sales, and not so much to more popular books and journals.

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    Good point. However, some publishers still do copy edit the accepted papers, for example journals published by the American Mathematical Society.
    – user4511
    Jan 17, 2014 at 20:53
  • Good answer, but I doubt the saved money meant lower prices. Without copyediting (and with only free peer review) we have journals run for next to nothing. Sep 12, 2016 at 1:56
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A reviewer who receives a submission which he/she has sent back a few times on grounds of serious problems with the scientific content or superficial presentation might just be happy at least those have been corrected and not bother also correcting typos and odd choices of words.

One more thing: a lot of reviewers aren't native speakers themselves (me, for example) and don't pick up on all the errors or have a hard time formulating what's wrong with a given word or phrase.

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    +1, but it is not the responsibility of the reviewer to provide a detailed list of typos. Remarking on the quality of writing is important, but to provide a detailed typo list is (or at least should be) considered by all involved purely as a bonus. So don't sweat it.
    – badroit
    Jan 10, 2014 at 15:31
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I can name seven reasons off hand (listed, roughly speaking, in the reverse order of the "validity of excuse" they offer)

1) The stuff is so complicated that there is no way to explain everything without writing a three volume treatise.

2) The author is pretty much "dyslexic" or incapable of expressing himself clearly for some other reason (it is amazing how many first rate mathematicians are like that at least occasionally)

3) The language in which the paper is written is not the mother tongue of the author.

4) This is the first paper of an inexperienced author (a student, say).

5) Someone is in a hurry to set up his priority.

6) Neither the author, nor the referee care much about style, and the editors are too busy with other stuff to take a close look.

7) The journal is happy to get at least something that doesn't look like an outright garbage.

and, surely, there are many more.

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A few years ago, I was asked to work with folk from a specific sub-discipline of our field. I'm not a scientist, but had been doing IT support in the general discipline for 6 years at that point.

They all spoke English well, and the majority were native English speakers -- yet their documentation had all of the same problems that you describe. So I wrote up notes about problems that I saw.

... and they rejected every comment I gave them.

The problem was that they had developed their own jargon, and what I had assumed they were talking about wasn't actually it.

The problems don't seem bad when you talk about it ... they had a 'prime key' which is somewhat related to a 'primary key', but not quite. And the 'dataset name' isn't the name of the table where the data's being stored (the 'data series name', but a serialized string for a given query. These are just subtle enough that you make assumptions when reading that they've obviously made a mistake, attempt to correct when reading it, and the whole thing just makes no sense by the time you're done.

...

I've heard people joke that jargon is a way for communities to keep out people who haven't yet given enough time to the community ... and I understand that sometimes different communities have slightly incompatible definitions ... but you really need some sort of a warning for certain cases.

When I was in grad school, we had a textbook that spent a full chapter defining what they meant by information. I thought it was horrible. I even told the author that when I met him at a conference (he told me some of my comments would've been more useful, but they had gone to press on the 2nd edtion just weeks before). But I've since come to understand why he had to do it -- as painful as that chapter was to read, it would've been even worse to try to read the whole book without a shared understanding of 'information'.

update : I said they didn't seem so bad on the surface, and until you actually run into these cases you probably won't appreciate just what a problem is can be. Although spelling wasn't originally called out by the question, here are a few situations where jargon can look like the problems mentioned so far:

  • Spelling : Some communities will use foreign words or the British spelling of words rather than an Americanized spelling to convey slightly different meaning. eg, archaelogy's provenience to distinguish between provenance as used by archives and museums.
  • Grammar : Some communities may consider the same term to be singular or plural; eg, 'data' is considered by the scientific community to be the plural of 'datum', while the computer science community considers it to be an abbreviation of 'dataset', a collective noun and therefore singular.
  • Odd word choices : Some communities, especially in the legal field, will assign specific meaning to words or phrases. eg, Bill Clinton's insistence that he did not have 'sexual relations' with Monica Lewinsky. In some cases, the specific meaning differs between communities (eg, an earth science, a 'data product' is composed of multiple 'datasets' (individual files; the relationship is reversed in solar physics). Issues also arise with metaphor in informal speach, such as the American 'kick the bucket' or the British 'Bob's your uncle'.
  • Incoherent sentences : When combined, the above issues seem make statements seem incoherent because we think we understand the message based on our incorrect assumption that we understood each of the words within the statement. It can be almost painful to read / listen to / etc. If as an American, you've never seen early episodes of Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef, you'll realize that American and British cooking terms are different enough to cause significant confusion

Even with all of those issues, I don't want to say that the above problems never appear in published papers. I peer-reviewed a paper last year that had many of the issues, and told the editor that I suspected the co-authors (American and British) had never read the paper; they didn't accept the poor spelling and grammar as evidence, but they did accept when I pointed out the co-authors' papers that hadn't been cited.

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    Problem with jargon is especially true when the papers are among the pioneers published, and they really must invent some words to describe something still not very affirmative, or still much fluid in understanding.
    – Peter Teoh
    Jan 11, 2014 at 1:58
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    In my opinion, this answer has nothing to do with the question. Jan 11, 2014 at 11:27
  • Using strange jargon is something different then using wrong spelling and grammar everywhere. Jan 11, 2014 at 11:47
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    @PaŭloEbermann the point Joe is making is that it looked like spelling and grammar problems, but was really jargon.
    – hildred
    Jan 11, 2014 at 17:38
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    Unfortunately, you don't have to write a pioneer paper to invent your own jargon. I have seen this done way too often.
    – StasK
    Jan 13, 2014 at 21:06
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The role of a reviewer is clear: Review the scientific quality of the paper, no the language one, as long as the language is "bearable". The problem is on the other side.

Too much is published. Journals are missing good Language Editors, but as well good Copy Editors and good Typesetters. If they have these people and they are good, they have to deal with too much work to do it well.

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