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I am reviewing a paper for possible publication in a respected journal. The English in the paper is very poor. The authors are clearly not native English speakers. I want to write something to the effect of the following in my review.

I advise the authors to find a native English speaker to proofread the manuscript.

My question: Is this appropriate in a review?

On one hand, I think it is good, constructive advice. The paper would be significantly clearer if someone spent a few hours helping them fix it up. I can try to help them through reviewer comments, but it would be much easier if someone could help them in person. The authors are located in a western English-speaking country, so they should be able to find someone.

On the other hand, I don't want to be "the mean reviewer." I understand that English can be difficult to master for immigrants. Perhaps there is a more diplomatic way of saying this.

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    You may it tell them to. But you can always suggest them to do so. – Ébe Isaac Dec 24 '15 at 6:56
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    "Native english speaker" is not 100% accurate suggestion, you should suggest improving scientific english. – SSimon Dec 24 '15 at 12:29
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    "A proofreader with good written English skills". A "speaker" doesn't exactly help with a a written paper, and many native English speakers have atrocious writing. In addition, many people are not good at proofreading and are instead overpowered by the text in front of them. – gnasher729 Dec 24 '15 at 13:47
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    Related question: what do you do when their English uses idioms prone to misunderstanding outside their home dialect of the language? (My canonical example is the Indian-English use of "I have a doubt" where others would say "I have a question".) – keshlam Dec 24 '15 at 16:57
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    Suggesting them to seek professional help and give them a short list of major grammatical problems is better. Your recommendation assumes that native speakers read/write well and we all know that it's a couple light years from the truth. – Penguin_Knight Dec 24 '15 at 17:50

11 Answers 11

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It's obviously appropriate and constructive to comment on writing issues that significantly affect the quality of the paper. The only question is how to do it as constructively as possible.

Personally, I prefer to suggest that "the authors get editing help from someone with full professional proficiency in English" rather than asking for "a native English speaker." I see other reviewers write the latter, so it's not uncommon, but I feel like it sounds a little bit like I'm "punishing" the authors for not having been born in an English-speaking country. There are plenty of academics who are not native English speakers, and don't have the same proficiency as native English speakers, but are still perfectly capable of high-quality academic writing.

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    I really like the phrasing you suggested, i.e. "full professional proficiency in English". I'm guilty of having asked authors to get their manuscripts proofread by a native speaker, but I've always felt a little weird doing so. In the future, I'll say it your way. – Deepak Dec 24 '15 at 8:14
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    Isn't requesting someone with full professional proficiency in English just as punishing for authors who happen to live in a place where such people are simply hard to come by? I prefer to speak in goal-oriented terms such as the language used is not sufficiently comprehensible and needs to be improved. – O. R. Mapper Dec 24 '15 at 11:55
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    @Buzz a native English speaker not proficient in technical and academic writing can do worse to a manuscript than a non-native one who is proficient in those two aspects. Thus, better only make a general remark about the need of revision. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 24 '15 at 14:51
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    @Kimball No worries, we will all start using it now and anonimity will be quickly restored :-) – Massimo Ortolano Dec 24 '15 at 20:06
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    I know plenty of native English speakers I wouldn't trust with my manuscript – and that includes academics! I'd say that professional/editorial proficiency in a language is actually stronger than native. – Will Vousden Dec 27 '15 at 18:34
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I think the answer somewhat depends on what kind and intensity of problems we are talking about.

First, however, some thoughts on who else could deal with this:

  • The editor and the initial quality check (if one exists) have apparently judged the quality of English to be sufficient for you to review the paper. Thus, you have to expect them not to address this issue by themselves.

  • Copy editors can and hopefully will fix many issues, but as they are not experts of the subject, they can only do so much (also, some publishers have lousy copy editing). For example, I had copy editors miscorrect a triangulation to the triangulation, as they did not know that the triangulation was not unique in the context. In another example, I know cases where non-native speakers coined new technical terms making suboptimal use of English that however becomes only apparent to somebody who understands the concept described by the term.

    Also, copy editors only act after the paper is accepted, which does not help if the quality of English is so bad that it’s impeding the review.

Regarding phrasing your advice, I prefer to avoid explicit suggestions what to do, but rather state what what problems you had and what has to change. You do not know the circumstances under which the manuscript was created and what ways to improve the language are available to the authors. For example, it may be that one of the authors has a good command of English but wasn’t strongly involved in writing the manuscript. Make implicit hints strong rather than subtle though, as the authors may fail to notice the latter, given their English skills.

In addition to ff524’s arguments against explicitly recommending native speakers, I think that recommending a native speaker ignores the importance of understanding the subject matter. Somebody with decent English skills¹ who understands the manuscript is often much more valuable than a professional proofreader who is not from the field.

To get some idea how to phrase the advice, I suggest asking yourself the following questions:

  • Did you fail to understand significant portions of the paper due to bad English? – If yes, you should definitely indicate this, as at least in the next round of review, you need to understand the whole paper. I suggest (and consider it appropriate) to write something along the lines of the following:

    Unfortunately, due to shortcomings in the language of the manuscript, I could not fully assess its quality.

    This is an honest statement of facts that does not explicitly tell anybody what to do, but strongly implies that something needs to be done. Moreover, you are implicitly saying that this is not about the scientific quality of the manuscript and that you would like to assess its quality if only you could.

  • Is the quality of English consistently bad? – I often see manuscripts where you can clearly tell that certain passages were written by different authors. If some of the passages are good, this suggests that their author has a sufficient command of English to revise the rest of the manuscript. As an author, this person is likely best suited for the job. However, it could also be that the authors had only some passages proofread for whatever reason.

    Thus an explicit suggestion may be inaccurate or confusing and I would suggest pointing out which passages are problematic and praising the others. This should make it sufficiently clear what to do:

    While Sections 1 to 3 were well written, I found it difficult to understand the English of Section 4.

  • Are there some kinds of mistakes that occur particularly often? – If yes, point them out. For example, some authors tend to use multiple compounds wherever possible without properly hyphenating them, or mix up definite and indefinite articles. (In both these cases, correcting them often requires a deep understanding of the subject matter and thus cannot be done by a copy editor.)

  • Did the review take significantly longer due to bad English? – If yes, and you expect to have another round of review, you can save some time by remarking on the quality of English now, which I consider appropriate as you are volunteering to review after all. For example you could say:

    Due to language mistakes, the manuscript was difficult to read.

    If not, and if nothing else is wrong with the language that cannot be addressed on a per-sentence basis, a comment to the editor or a negative rating of the language quality in the editorial system (if it asks you for this) may suffice.


¹ preferably with a native language that is different from the authors’ one

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    "I often see manuscripts where you can clearly tell that certain passages were written by different authors." Sometimes even by different authors than those listed on the paper - when I see a few paragraphs or sentences (sometimes even entire sections) with uncharacteristically good English in a paper I'm reviewing, I immediately go to Google to check for plagiarism, and find evidence of such distressingly often. Also see Should a reviewer critique language and text copy-paste issues? – ff524 Dec 24 '15 at 10:01
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    To be honest, I find the sentence "Unfortunately, due to shortcomings in the language of the manuscript, I could not fully assess its quality." overly formal and a little hard to understand (even as a native English speaker). I know something more direct might be less diplomatic, but I'm worried a sentence like that could cause confusion. – David Corwin May 29 '17 at 20:08
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I disagree in a subtle but significant way with many of the current answers. I absolutely agree that it is the responsibility of a reviewer to point out language problems.

I strongly disagree, however, that the reviewer should tell the authors how to solve those problems, any more than they should tell the authors how to solve their scientific problems. The reviewer should say something like:

This paper has numerous grammar and language issues, which need to be addressed.

Then it's up to the authors to figure out whether they need a native speaker, a professional proofreader, simply more care on the part of the current authors, etc. If you presume to diagnose why the paper is the way it is, it is just as inappropriate as if you said "the authors need to enlist the help of somebody who know statistics to improve their data analysis." Even if you do know why and it would somehow be appropriate for you to say to the authors in person, remember that reviews are generally blind, and the authors can't tell you from some random jerk reviewer #3.

In short: constructive reviews state the problem, rather than presuming the solution, and this applies to language as well as technical content.

  • I fail to see how most existing answers advocate telling the author how to solve their problems. In fact, I would say that two answers argue explicitly against it. – Wrzlprmft Dec 24 '15 at 14:16
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    This may be a matter of personal preference - as an author I very much prefer when reviewers offer suggested solutions in addition to pointing out problems, so that's the kind of review I try to write myself. (Consider e.g. "this article seems to be out of scope for this conference, as X is only tangential to its subject" vs "this article seems out of scope for this conference. The authors might run additional experiments emphasizing the connection to X to make it in scope. Alternatively they might submit to A or B instead, where it seems to be in scope in its present form.") – ff524 Dec 24 '15 at 18:32
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    @ff524 While you are correct in the general case, it is not a reviewers role to identify (or correct) errors in the writing of the paper. Of course significant errors should be/can be indicated but in most cases with poor English the frequency of errors is quite high. As reviewers are taking on the role voluntarily having them identify all those errors is beyond the scope of their task. – Paul de Vrieze Jul 26 '16 at 20:02
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    @PauldeVrieze Neither I nor this answer is proposing that the reviewer provide an exhaustive list of all the errors in the writing of the paper, so I'm not sure what you are responding to. – ff524 Jul 26 '16 at 20:05
  • I think there's a middle ground. Phrase solutions as suggested options, rather than as orders. E.g., "One possible idea for how to fix this is..." – David Corwin May 29 '17 at 20:09
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I've seen a couple of variations of this pattern in articles I have authored or coauthored:

  • The most useful variation is where the reviewer points out specific places were grammar might not be correct, and specially places where those mistakes can lead to misunderstandings. Just write the paragraph you are referring to, and your preferred rewording. That helps the authors see how you are understanding their manuscript.
  • Also useful is stating potential terminology issues, where something is being referred to with terms which are understood differently by the target journal or community. Those can be alluded to, so that they can be fixed throughout the manuscript.

In the cases above, I feel there is no need to call for a ”proficient English proofreader“.

However, if the manuscript:

  • Is difficult to follow, because the grammar might be correct, but contorted;
  • Makes you feel unsure about the claims, because of the writing;
  • Is utterly opaque…

Then say so, and use @ff524's suggestion of professional grade proofreading.

Ps. I have also seen the ”please, let co-author X proofread the manuscript“, when X is known to be a proficient (usually native) English speaker, but doing that is both a slap to the main author, and to X, because if s/he is a co-author, s/he should have already done so. Only write that when you're sure of the implications 😉

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    doing that is both a slap to the main author, and to X, because if s/he is a co-author, s/he should have already done so — Yes, exactly. But sometimes it's a necessary slap. – JeffE Dec 25 '15 at 22:50
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Although I consider myself fluent in English (having lived most of my adult life in English Canada), technically I am not a native speaker, as my mother tongue is not English.

On more than one occasion as a reviewer, I advised authors to have their paper reviewed by a native speaker of English. I always understood that phrase to mean either someone whose mother tongue is English or someone who speaks (and writes) English at a native level, but not necessarily someone whose birth certificate was issued in an English-speaking jurisdiction. I feel compelled to do this when the paper in question contains a large number of grammatical mistakes or odd turns of phrase, too numerous for a reviewer to list or correct (if there are only a few mistakes, I just point them out and list them); and especially when the journal in question is not known for its high quality copy editing.

What good it does, I don't know. But I certainly never felt that it was inappropriate for me to offer this advice. Being an immigrant myself, I don't think that I am prejudiced against non-native speakers. I have done this both for papers that I recommended for rejection and also for papers that I deemed suitable for publication.

  • I wonder if this is what people mean by "near-native." I'm curious since I'm fluent in a language different from my native language, to the point where native speakers often assume I'm a native speaker for at least a few minutes (after which they might notice something confusing or a slight slip in accent). I often wonder whether I should put "native" down on forms asking for fluency, since it's usually the best approximation to my fluency, even if not technically accurate. – David Corwin May 29 '17 at 20:12
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It is not only the case that you can advise the authors to work on improving the level of English of their paper (including getting the paper proofread by others), but I'd argue that you should do so (or even go beyond advising to requiring that they have the paper proofread, or even beyond that to outright rejecting the paper on the grounds of being not comprehensible enough) if you feel that this is a serious enough of an issue. Generally speaking, it is your duty as a reviewer to point out and criticize any flaws in the paper that make it less valuable for the journal and its readers. This extends to all aspects of the paper, from the science, to the clarity of exposition, technical correctness, and the language. In particular, in cases where a major flaw in the paper's ability to communicate otherwise good science to the readers can be removed through the relatively small effort of having the paper proofread by a person with good English proficiency, it seems absolutely appropriate and advisable to advise, ask, or even require the authors to do that.

On the other hand, as ff524 pointed out in her excellent answer, asking for the proofreader to be a native English speaker is an illogical requirement. What matters is that the proofreader should have a high level of proficiency in English, particularly with regards to professional or technical texts.

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I always find it useful to tell these type of issues to the editor. If you tell the editor that the document is poorly written in terms of language use, I believe that the editor will find a way to forward your message properly to the writers.

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I think this sort of review comment is pretty common, but I dislike it. The purpose of the review is to advise the editor about the quality of the manuscript. Advising the authors is beyond the scope of the review. For most journals, corrections to spelling/grammar are (in theory) provided by a copy editor. For expensive subscription journals, authors should be allowed to use this service.

There are also three ways this sort of comment can make the reviewer look bad:

  1. The paper was written by a bunch of native speakers who have funny names. Yes, I have seen this happen.
  2. The review has terrible grammar. This happens > 30% of the time.
  3. An implication of bias, which can be avoided by replacing "native English speaker" with "expert editor" or similar.
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    "Advising the authors is beyond the scope of the review." - Why? If I have some suggestions I believe the authors would find helpful in improving the quality of the manuscript, why shouldn't I share them? – ff524 Dec 24 '15 at 5:04
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    I find it perfectly natural to advise the editor regarding the quality of the submitted manuscript, then offer suggestions to the authors on how they might improve it (regardless of the editor's decision.) I don't see any reason to address the latter to the editor rather than the authors. – ff524 Dec 24 '15 at 5:15
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    Maybe it is different in physics, but in my field, reviews almost always involve suggestions to the authors, whether it is suggestions about how to present the data, other analyses that should be included, etc. In any case, comments about the quality of the paper are basically implicit suggestions for improvement, so I see little difference. – user24098 Dec 24 '15 at 7:30
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    I downvoted. 1) Copy editors, when they exist, don't understand the technical content. They have several times introduced severe, meaning-changing errors into my papers in an attempt to "correct" my English (or maybe more than several times - I'm referring to the instances I actually caught). 2) The paragraph about "make the reviewer look bad" makes no sense. 3) Advising the authors how to improve their paper is an essential part of a reviewer's job (e.g., from a recent refereeing request I was sent: "...constructive feedback for the authors is appreciated. ...") – Dan Romik Dec 24 '15 at 11:02
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    "For most journals, corrections to spelling/grammar are (in theory) provided by a copy editor." - this is very field-dependent. In some fields, authors are expected to deliver their paper exactly as it will appear in the end, down to the last comma. Fixing spelling mistakes and the like is seen as a task of the authors required to get the paper published, not as a service of the publisher. – O. R. Mapper Dec 24 '15 at 11:58
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I, as being myself not native English speaker and as a person who has published in a respected journal, would recommend you to politely advise the authors to proofread their paper by a native English if their target journal is published in an English speaking counrty and/or has the requirement for good language. Some journals (for example, respected British journal) do have this requirement.

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    So, if the journal is published in English but not in an English-speaking country and does not explicitly mention good language as a requirement for publication, you would not recommend it? – Wrzlprmft Dec 26 '15 at 8:45
  • I mean that I would formulate the recommendation as 'Please pay attention that if your target journal requires ... I would recommend you to poofread ... '. Really, I, as an author, would definitely listen to such advice (even unasked from my side) from an English speaking person and I would definitely know if my target journal is strict to the language quality. – Nat Dec 26 '15 at 8:55
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I do accept 'Nat' comments. As a non-native english speaker, what english do we have to learn. British, American, European, Austrilian or Indian? I strongly feel that content is very important and then grammer comes next. If you suggest/correct the sentences, it is more appreciated, that is what I do normally when I review papers.

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You can ask them to do that, but it may not be appropriate.

As an experienced native English proofreader who is very familiar with the peer-review process, I can say that often what is needed is not a proofread at all but rather a multi-stage substantive edit followed by a proofread.

There are some proofreading companies that will give you a proofread if you ask them for one; I, and most other freelancers, will ask to see a sample of the work and then suggest what the most appropriate service is before quoting on providing that service.

The requirement for native English versus non-native is a different question, and I would say that for publishable work it is normal to require a native speaker.

Hope that helps.

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