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Recently I read an article (Prestigious journals make it hard for scientists who don't speak English to get published, study finds) stating that there appears to be minimal effort in a wide swath of (bioscience at least) journals to be more inclusive on the language front. Essentially, publishing in scientific journals, most of which are in English, is much harder for non-native speakers than for native speakers.

Shortly after this, I just happened to receive a request to referee a manuscript which is clearly written by non-native speakers. I like the content of the manuscript, and I plan to expend significant effort to address the specific grammatical issues within the paper.

The question is: how should I go about writing the comments in the report tactfully, which is to say that the authors would not take offence, and also find the comments helpful?

This issue is a particularly sensitive one to me personally because I am a Chinese-Canadian who did all of his education in Canada from secondary school onwards. Nevertheless, I have received a profoundly rude referee report that baselessly attacked the grammar and general writing of a manuscript of mine, while suggesting "the authors should consult a native English speaker before submitting the manuscript again" (my coauthor is ethnically Japanese but also did all of his education in Canada). I have to emphasize that the report was very badly written and was riddled with grammatical errors itself. Because of this, I have vowed to never submit a paper to this particular journal again (though I did not bring this issue with the editors).

I would not want to make the authors of this paper feel what I felt when I received that particular report. So how do I address these issues tactfully in a useful manner?

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    As an aside, I've grown up a native English speaker and gotten snarky reviewers telling me to get help from a native speaker. Mar 26 at 18:50
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    "Because of this, I have vowed to never submit a paper to this particular journal again (though I did not bring this issue with the editors)." I am sorry, but this makes zero sense to me. How is it the journal's responsibility if a referee exaggerates languages issues in a manuscript? A meaningful course of action would be the opposite: instead of vowing not to submit to journal X but not saying anything to the editors, it would have made sense to mention this to the editors' (who can act on it in some way or another) but not engage in a dramatic but private act of vowing not to submit there. Mar 26 at 19:21
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    @AdamPřenosil If the same situation happened today I would most certainly bring this up to the editors. At the time I was a PhD student who was virtually unknown, so I did not feel that my comments to the editor (who is a prominent academic, very well-known and connected in my field) would help me, and might be perceived as very negative or whiney. It could have potentially hurt my future career aspects, so I decided not to do it. That said, a journal should take responsibility for what their referees do because they were the ones who asked said people to referee their submissions. Mar 26 at 19:49
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    @AdamPřenosil depending upon the tone and content of the reviews, a good editor will shelter authors from abusive or otherwise bad reviewer comments. Especially for younger authors or those who may not be able to standup for themselves. Mar 26 at 20:26
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    @AdamPřenosil of course there is a lot of subjectivity as to whether something is "seriously rude"... I most certainly considered the report to be seriously rude, though you might disagree with my assessment. This is exactly why I asked the question here, I do not want to come off as unacceptably rude even though I have no intention of being rude at all. That said, I do not give any benefit of the doubt to the referee: to me we received those comments because the referee saw our names and assumed we were Asians who did not speak English. Mar 26 at 20:51

2 Answers 2

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If you think the science is solid, treat the authors how you would like to be treated. How have people helped you to be a better writer?

I would start my review by highlighting the strengths and why you think the science should be published. Then, provide positive and constructive suggestions. Here's an example of what I might include in a review (as long as it is all true):

I found this manuscript to be timely and presenting relevant for this journal. The topics of X, Y, and Z fit well into the mission and... <provide 1-2 paragraph summary of the research>.

Technically, the work seems solid, although I would like to see (revision points here in a paragraph).

Lastly, the writing had some common mistakes. I have provided some suggestions to help the authors. For example, the authors consistently did not use parallel sentence structure throughout the paper and . As specific examples include:

Line 102: Update "researchers writing and study" to be "researchers writing and studying" and check throughout. Lines 107-108: Contains a run-on sentence. Please consider shortening to be

For these types of reviews, invest as much time as you think appropriate given your own schedule and ability to help.

Edit: Even if you think the science is unsound, please treat others the way you want to be treated. But, do not worry as much about the writing in the review. Focus on the underlying science.

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    This is more or less how I worded a similar response to a review I made. It was almost exactly the same situation - the work was interesting but there were so many grammatical errors it was hard to read/understand. So I tried took the same approach, said the contribution was useful, the paper interesting but I pointed out a number of grammatical errors that made understanding difficult or even changed the meaning of the text and I suggested they use an editing service. I hope they weren't offended but they did do what I suggested. Mar 28 at 1:54
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I have not received (nor written) a referee report suggesting that the authors consult a native English speaker for copy editing purposes, but I suspect I would have a similar reaction as you did, in part due to the assumption that native English speakers are necessarily good writers or copy editors — this is certainly not the case. For the situation you mentioned that happened with you, I hope you felt comfortable talking to your PhD supervisors or other mentors. You mentioned in the comments that you didn’t feel empowered to contact the editor yourself — I could imagine that for a truly egregious report a PhD supervisor could have done so on your behalf. There are reasons for not wanting that either, of course. I just hope you had supportive people to talk to at the time.

There have been many cases where I have commented on language usage in referee reports — either due to grammatical or syntactical errors, which I think is what you are referring to, or due to poor organisation, e.g. of the introduction. I would suggest the following steps:

  1. If the writing or organisation makes it impossible for you to evaluate the paper, write a first referee report asking for the language issues to be corrected, withholding judgment of the content until you receive a revised version. (I didn’t know this as a PhD student, it’s certainly possible to have multiple rounds of refereeing and revision, for the same paper at the same journal.) Or, contact the editor directly about this. Personally I would only do this in extreme cases, since/if I can imagine an editor outright rejecting the paper on the basis of writing alone, which is not my goal.

  2. Split your referee report into a “content” section and an “exposition” section. State explicitly that any issues with exposition do not detract from the content, assuming this is true.

  3. In the “exposition” section, as with the “content” section, it is up to you how fine-grained your comments are. For organisational issues, it would be reasonable to list your concerns and either suggest alternatives or leave it to the authors to address. For obvious writing errors, you could mention some major recurring errors, and leave it to the authors to detect where these have occurred. Once, as a much younger person with much more time on my hands, feeling guilty about not recommending a paper for publication written by friends of mine, I listed every single language error I found — I would not recommend doing this in general.

  4. Consider making constructive comments about both content and exposition even if you do not recommend the paper for publication, to ease a future refereeing process.

  5. Don’t equate “native speaker” with “competent writer and expositor”. Instead of writing “Please consult a native speaker before resubmitting” consider writing “Please correct the errors in language before resubmitting”, ideally having pointed some out. The first assumes that the authors are not native speakers as well as that any arbitrary native speakers could/would have written better. The second centres the actual issues you have detected with the paper and provides specific examples of what you would like changed.

  6. As mentioned in the other answers and comments, be kind. Consider being especially kind to early career colleagues and to those who may already feel isolated within academia.

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    Your point 5 is the bulk of the answer I would have written. I would add that you might suggest that they find a competent copy editor (e.g. most universities have some kind of "writing center" which one could consult---I have many native-English-speaking colleagues who have taken draft papers to the local writing center for help). Mar 27 at 13:14
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    Thank you for your very thoughtful answer! Regarding your first paragraph, I did in fact talk to some mentors over the years about this incident and they were about as outraged as can be expected. However, given that the paper had already been rejected and was submitted successfully elsewhere, they advised that I shouldn't try to dig up old wounds after the fact. Mar 27 at 18:02
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    Totally anecdotally, but in my experience, an average non-native English speaker from the Nordic region is likely to read and write English better than the average native English speaking American. Point 5 could be its own answer and still be good.
    – David S
    Mar 27 at 23:33

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