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I am writing an article with a senior colleague. Although English is not their first language, they keep re-writing the entire article in their own words.

I would not normally care, but the way he re-writes it is semi-grammatical and very hard to comprehend, so that I feel I have to change it back to something grammatical after I have figured out what he means. A week or two later, I will find that he has gone back to certain sections and re-written them so that they are in semi-grammatical English again.

I understand that language is not the main priority of a scientific article so as I say this would not normally bother me, but it is having an active effect on the ability of the paper to convey its results, as well as causing me work having to read and understand it to translate it back.

What is the easiest way to get around this issue without coming across as rude?

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  • 8
    Does "senior colleague" mean another faculty member or an advisor?
    – Buffy
    Sep 22 at 19:10
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    '...language is not the main priority of a scientific article --' -- are you sure?
    – VitaminE
    Sep 22 at 20:34
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    The best way is to refer to grammatical rules or refer to a book on good academic writing. I understand your 'pain'. I used to work with a senior colleague who had poor writing practices. I only wrote one paper with this person, and that was it.
    – VitaminE
    Sep 22 at 20:37
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    Are you actually sure that the scientific content is the same of your and your co authors rewrite? There might be some subtle differences.
    – lalala
    Sep 23 at 8:09
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    Another point to think about: what you consider "semi-grammatical and very hard to comprehend" may in fact be just the style, grammar, tone of voice etc. used in your particular sub-field. Some fields may require for a more formal speech than you may be writing, or something like this. And what may be even more difficult, your colleague's edits may non-grammatical, but close enough to the required style, while your edits are grammatically correct, but do not match the style needed.
    – Petr
    Sep 23 at 10:44
77

This depends a lot on your analysis of their personality. If they are reasonable, then suggesting that you edit the final submitted version will improve the English and make it less likely that the reviewers would ask for corrections should not cause blowback.

"Hmmm, prof, maybe I can improve the English a bit for the final version." If they are primarily committed to the ideas, and not to their "obviously brilliant" exposition, it should be fine for a reasonable person.

But, it is dangerous to offend some advisors. It isn't a question of being rude, but for some, just being honest is enough.

In the former case, I'd raise the issue. But in the latter, just let it go at the end and see what the reviewers say.

You may be wrong about how language is less important in science, actually. Clear writing is needed. For some things, even more needed.

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  • 56
    +1 for the last sentence. Sep 22 at 20:29
  • 31
    I want to add: it could also be that the co-author is trying to include a subtlety that your edit is missing. Maybe you can try talking to them why they keep reverting your changes?
    – Dhara
    Sep 23 at 9:17
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    @Dhara I supsect, that may be exactly the point. Especially in mathematics, some formulations might be nicer but could introduce tiny undesirable (let alone wrong) changes in the meaning.
    – YYY
    Sep 23 at 9:45
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    @user21820 I don't have a guess one way or another, but many important technical mathematical details are explained in words, not just symbols. Most of mathematics is not just formulas and equations.
    – Kimball
    Sep 23 at 20:07
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    @user21820 I did - the point is that the the colleague might be trying to restore a mathematical subtlety, however introducing grammatical mistakes in the process due to their unfamiliarity with the language. Usually when there's an edit war both sides have some reasons, and the best way to stop it is to actually talk to each other about what's the point of these edits... Sep 24 at 11:02
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I have refereed many articles and reading poor English is very unpleasant. It's hard enough to understand the ideas the article is presenting without language making it harder.

Also, I have had several advisors and many bosses and uniformly they all valued opinions in this order:

  1. opinion from a so-called expert
  2. opinion from someone outside the organization
  3. their own opinion
  4. opinion from a crazy homeless guy on the sidewalk outside
  5. my opinion

I've had this experience with advisor/bosses that liked me and thought highly of me. This dynamic is probably at play with you and it is exceedingly unlikely to change in the (hopefully) short time you have to work with this advisor.

Another dynamic that could be in play is that the senior colleague feels a need to put their mark on the paper. This need can come from many places. Maybe their way of writing makes more sense to them. Maybe they feel like they didn't contribute enough to the paper, and this is their way of contributing. Maybe it's a pure dominance play.

Edit: [ Two more dynamics that could be at play. (1) It could be that the colleague is an immigrant and is sensitive about his English because he has been treated poorly by natives. If the original poster is a native, this makes the situation delicate. (2) Some cultures/individuals are much more hierarchical than others. If the colleague leans towards hierarchy then he made need signals from the original poster acknowledging who is in charge.]

I don't think there is a simple way of resolving this conflict. But one way or another, you should have to have a discussion with your colleague. At a minimum, you need to understand where your colleague is coming from. You'll have to be very polite and fawning. His ideas and inspiration are great. Clearly, he is the more learned and knowledgeable party. But please, you're begging: could he allow you to clean up the grammar a little here and there?

Edit: [ I use "fawning" as hyperbole and it may be too strong. but a sincere effort should probably be made to acknowledge the colleague's strengths. ]

If he truly feels that his writing style makes more sense than yours, then you are at an impasse and you may have to go to plan B: wait for the referees to come back with comments.

Good luck

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  • 4
    Did you inquire whether that crazy homeless guy might be a Fields-medal laureate or something?
    – Stef
    Sep 24 at 8:00
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    This is indeed probably the correct analysis. I don't understand why many others try so hard to avoid saying what is most likely the case: Ego. The one thing I do not agree with in your post is to "be fawning".
    – user21820
    Sep 24 at 11:06
  • @user21820. If, in fact, Ego is a large factor, then fawning may be the only strategy that doesn't get the senior colleague's hackles up. Maybe "fawning" is too strong, but a sincere effort should probably be made to acknowledge the colleague's strengths. There's another dynamic I just thought of: if the colleague is an immigrant and the original poster is a native, it could be that the colleague is sensitive about his English because he is often treated poorly by natives. In that case, the original poster may have to work very hard to establish a trusting relationship with the colleague.
    – bfris
    Sep 24 at 13:56
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    I agree with the second sentence of your comment. I do not condone falsehood if it can be avoided, including boot-licking (which is even worse than fawning). It is much better to simply show respect and acknowledge the good points of the colleagues, than to engage in any form of pretense (which "fawn" conveys). If you replace "fawning" by "respectful" and change "the more learned and ..." to "a learned ...", I would upvote your answer wholeheartedly.
    – user21820
    Sep 24 at 14:02
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Maybe you should have a joint session. Both of you sit side-by-side in front of a computer and make the final edits together. You two can discus every formulation. The advantage is, you get a better feeling of what your advisor wants to express, you can help him finding the right words, and you can let it go once you sense anger or other negative vibes.

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Another alternative is to submit some excerpts with "semi-grammatical" issues to a second opinion of native language and with at least some knowledge on the field and compare with your version of the text. No need to mention the whole situation, just ask which version is clearer/correct. If it happens that they agree with you most of times then explain with all due respect the situation, otherwise consider that can be your limitation.

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  • Overall agree, though I agree with @Buffy that OP may need to pick battles here depending on the personality of the advisor. But this is a good first check to make sure OP isn't missing something before considering whether to confront their advisor.
    – bob
    Sep 23 at 18:46
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Plan B: do nothing (since the co-author is more senior) but offer to work on the revision after the paper has been submitted. Any self-respecting editor/reviewer will point out the issues with language.

By offering to do the work on the revision following the reviewers' comments, you will have the last say on the language used in the paper (after all, language is the only thing you disagree with your co-author).


The Pros:

  • You're the last to work on the paper
  • The changes to the language of the paper are motivated by third party input (the reviewers), it's not you that's saying that your co-author's language is bad. You can always pretend to be happy with your co-author's work to save everybody's face
  • Since the co-author's version was submitted, and the language is likely to be pointed out by the reviewers, you're here to the rescue

The Cons:

  • Some things need to happen for this to work
    • The paper being accepted despite the potentially bad language
    • The co-author being happy for you to do the revising
    • The reviewers pointing out the bad language
  • You're planning to fix the issue at the very last point in time, which is generally not very prudent
  • You're wasting the time of the reviewers and make their work more difficult (as pointed out by some commenters)
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  • I agree but my experience with referees is a bit variable. Sometimes they point out the language issues, sometimes they don't.
    – Tom
    Sep 23 at 15:10
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    Also, sometimes they will give a bad review of paper because the language is so bad that they don't understand it and you will lose your chance for acceptance in that journal. Sep 23 at 20:50
  • 3
    Additionl Con (for the reviewers): Reviewing a paper which is poorly written is a nightmare.
    – D1X
    Sep 24 at 11:47
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    Instead of officially submitting it, maybe you can convince someone the senior professor knows to do an unofficial review, focusing on language? Some other way to get a 3rd-party opinion on language, without wasting as much time for as many people reading a paper you know is hard to read, and putting them in the position of being expected them to be reviewing the context as well as the language. Sep 26 at 2:33
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Since you say senior colleague, Im assuming this is not your professor. If it is there may be little that you can do.

Complain to your professor and explain what is happening, he is unlikely to want you wasting your time on this kind of nonsense. If he doesn't step in immediately he is not doing his job.

If this doesn't work (unfortunate) then explain the situation to your department chair. When I did this the professor quite literally got yelled at by the chair.

Remember that too frequently "senior" colleagues are simply people who have failed to get a professor job, and hence seem to like picking bones forever more.

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Senior colleague? I'd leave it alone. He wants it that way, so it goes.

If there's an issue later, deal with it.

Perhaps he's laying claim to a particular point of the publication, as in, "that sounds like Dr. Joe's voice" or something.

"I understand that language is not the main priority of a scientific article"

True, but we do USE language to clearly convey ideas to one another. If it's not getting in the way of clarity, leave the errors alone, just out of respect.

You could address it straight on, asking, "you've changed this passage back. My editing seemed clearer to me? What do you think?" and then read both excerpts of each instance of this.

Especially if it's quite minor, and DOESN'T impact the conveyance of any crucial detail, you're fine.

Just leaving his errors in, you could be said to be irresponsible, not looking out for your senior. Buuut...you edited...they went in and CHANGED IT BACK! Not the same.

Definitely novel situation. Play it by ear and go by how it feels. Depending on the dynamic between you two, it may not really be an option to discuss, unless he's open to it as well.

1

There is one very simple solution to your problem. You have to refer to facts not to your own opinion. Such facts could be, for instance, a passage from a respected book in the field. Or an automatic grammar/spell checker such as Grammarly.

You can say, I was not sure about my writing, therefore I checked the text with Grammarly. Here are the mistakes.

In order to effectively argue against this defense, one has to be very knowledgeable about English grammar and style. This program is very strong.

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    Grammarly is a nice tool, but unreliable by itself.
    – henning
    Sep 24 at 19:25

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