I am a first year PhD Student, writing a conference paper with an Italian Professor, very senior and renowned in our field. Every commit he makes to the SVN is riddled with spelling and grammar errors. I have been fixing the errors and also trying to improve the expression but I have this impression he is not very happy about me doing it. (Maybe something to do with him having dozens of publications and me having a total of Zero)

On occasion, he actually reverted my changes to stick with his wrong or inferior-quality expression. How to deal with this? I would hate to see this paper go with an inferior quality language when I could have improved it.

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    Talk to him
    – F'x
    Jan 30, 2013 at 20:48
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    Is the paper written in English? Is English your native language? Your question is very well-written but it doesn't read to me like a native English speaker wrote it. If it isn't, are you sure your grammar/phrasing (not spelling) improvements are correct? They may be correct but the professor still may feel that the meaning is changed after your improvements.
    – mkennedy
    Jan 30, 2013 at 21:54
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    @mkennedy yes English is my native language
    – user5838
    Jan 31, 2013 at 18:33
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    @F'x Yeah thats solves most problems, but that guy is ........ scary. That said, I only have a limited quota of interaction with him, and I would like to focus more on research during those calls. He is an external collaborator.
    – user5838
    Jan 31, 2013 at 18:41
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    So if he's an external collaborator, could you ask someone from your lab (your supervisor, your professor) to help moderating the conflict? Also, did you establish a spoken out rule/strategy of when the language poslishing should take place? I've had writing collaborations where we said "this draft is not polished, but please do not waste time on fine-tuning the language while we're still shiftin around blocks of text". Did you offer him to look over the language? When you change text, do you ask for an explanation in case you hadn't understood what he wants to say? Feb 2, 2013 at 18:46

6 Answers 6


As a French native speaker whose English was gradually improved over the years, I've been on both sides of this kind of situation, and there are different aspects to consider:

  • If your collaborator does not like you fixing typos, then there is a real problem;

  • It is usually accepted that papers are not written in British-English, nor in American-English, but in Global-English, and being a native English speaker yourself might not be strict advantage. If your collaborator has successfully managed to publish dozens of papers, then either his style is somehow accepted, or all his papers have been written by others, in which case he wouldn't mind letting you write the paper in your own style;

  • The style of an author is personal, and changing it can be seen as touching the ownership of the text, and can also be seen as offensive, especially when the gain of the modification is not immediately perceived (which might be the case for non native speaker, a "better" expression does not necessarily strike as an improvement). This is particularly true if you only change one expression: if you were to rewrite an entire paragraph, to change to some extent the content, it would probably be easier, since you've clearly improved the text.

  • At least for me, there is a clear notion of trust of people I'm working with. There are some people I completely trust, and I don't care a second if they modify my text, but I would be reluctant to see my text modified by someone I just started working with, especially if it's only for cosmetic purposes, like picking the best expression or word when the original one is understandable/correct, or changing a notation, or reformatting the paper, etc. I'm not saying I would be against, but I would need to understand and agree with the gain. In my opinion, this is mostly a notion of trust rather than seniority.

In summary, let it slide, as long as it does not impact the overall clarity of the paper, especially in the first stages of the paper (some expressions you don't like might disappear naturally after a while, replaced by new content).

  • "touching the ownership of the text". As I understand, the OP is a co-author. Jan 31, 2013 at 22:17
  • @MarcinKotowski: Sure, but I don't mean the authorship of the paper, rather the sense of ownership of a particular paragraph: if someone were to rewrite an entire paper of yours, just by changing the style, would you feel it's still your work?
    – user102
    Jan 31, 2013 at 22:22
  • @CharlesMorisset thanks for the answer! its good to see somebody else is elegantly expressing why he should let it slide (assuming that the Prof. is legit).
    – blackace
    Jan 31, 2013 at 23:40

You have better things to do like focusing on getting that PhD and the first paper. The guy is renowned as you so at this stage it doesn't matter for him that much. No editor is going to reject a paper you write with him because it had mistakes. At most people will say that the language should be improved etc.

Practical advise:

  1. Don't piss the guy off its not worth it. Be more politically savvy.

  2. I don't know your field but in some fields you have to write in a very specific manner and what might seem inferior quality to you might be the standard way to write in that field.

  3. Only raise the issue if its a titanic of a mistake! Do it gracefully. Next time don't change it put a polite comment.

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    No editor is going to reject a paper you write with him because it had mistakes. — [raises hand] Wrong. As a reviewer/editor, I expect paper from senior people to be more polished and more coherent. I might let language issues slide from a graduate student, but from a senior professor? Oh hell no.
    – JeffE
    Jan 31, 2013 at 4:36
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    In computer science, most publications are in conferences, which have tight reviewing schedules that don't allow for major revision and re-review. And yes, I have rejected papers with good results because they were badly written. Better results deserve better presentation.
    – JeffE
    Jan 31, 2013 at 5:11
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    Maybe an editor will not outright reject a paper, but a paper riddled with errors should be edited before it can be published. Jan 31, 2013 at 8:30
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    @blackace: A paper riddled with grammatical mistakes is difficult to read. If a paper is poorly written, it doesn't matter if the author is a native English speaker or somebody who learned it last week. If the paper is to appear in an English-language "publication," then it should be written to the appropriate standards.
    – aeismail
    Jan 31, 2013 at 9:57
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    "A paper riddled with grammatical mistakes is difficult to read" not only that, but I've seen manuscripts where I wasn't sure about the meaning of the sentences... Grammar and spelling are not only aesthetic, they carry meaning. Jan 31, 2013 at 17:26

I have learnt very fast not to be a perfectionist! So perhaps you can be less judgemental (not saying this in a bad way).

However, you still need to be rigorous and if there is something that is dramatically wrong, you can then discuss it with your professor.

Perhaps giving him two or three correction options may help. Let him choose which version he likes. In any case, you would be preparing the options, so whichever option he chooses will be ok for you.

As F'x said, talk to him.


It is always better to be diplomatic in academia, especially when you are a first year graduate student, and your advisor is a well-known person. That is "never piss off your advisor".

He can do whatever he wants if you piss him off. After you work with a professor for 2-3 years, your will only have two reasonable options: (1) quit the program, or (2) suffer and somehow get the PhD. The other option is to switch advisor, but if you are in the middle of the program, that is almost a no-option. Note that, even if your advisor doesn't become angry when you point out language mistakes at the moment, he may choose to stay calm, and find a way to react to you in future. My high level point is: be diplomatic. That is how academia works. If you piss off your advisor, you are not going to succeed in getting a PhD or a good job after that.

Coming to your specific question, may be you should leverage the fact that your advisor is well-known. After you submit the article to a journal (they may see his name and may be they won't be harsh), the editors will likely ask for improvements to the language, and may be then you can tell your professor that you will handle improving the language/grammar. Then it will show up as "taking responsibility" and he will appreciate you.


Other answers assume that the professor is OP's advisor, which seems not to be the case. I would advise to avoid working with this guy in the future (if he's stubborn on such small matters, it's unlikely to end well), and if he was your advisor, the standard JeffE's response would apply: "Don't walk, run!"

I am somewhat appalled that most answers seem to recommend the "play safe, don't mess with powerful people" approach. The language errors themselves might not seem like a big enough deal to pick up a fight, but by choosing to be "politically savvy" now you make it easier for yourself to compromise in the future on more serious matters. Yes, to fight over such issues requires lack of self-preservation instinct, but by choosing to do a PhD instead of an "honest job" you've already shown that's not a problem ;). Sorry if this is a bit off topic/argumentative, but I've seen this kind of answers also in other threads and I think the advice goes in exactly the wrong direction - there is a lot of excellent jobs outside academia, so contrary to other answers in this thread you are actually full of options (being smart enought to be doing a PhD gives you a very strong hand).

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    I am seeing him as someone the student can work with and get extra results, connections, papers, recommendation letter etc. This guy can be helpful to him and it doesn't make sense to piss him off for this sort of an issue. What you are suggesting as an alternative is nice talk but doesn't work. Academia is a place of complex power dynamics and egos and full of smart people that play games. Being appalled is not going to help you navigate the space, understanding why it is the way that it is and being politically savvy is going to help. You are brilliant and later you change the institution...
    – blackace
    Jan 31, 2013 at 23:58
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    I totally agree with @blackace. If you really want a PhD, then you need to play safe in academia. Unfortunately that is how it works and everyone doing a PhD learn it at some point during their PhD, and unfortunately most of them learn it the hard way!
    – Anonymous
    Feb 1, 2013 at 0:02
  • @anonymous +1 for the hard way! We all started with these romantic notions! after a couple of brick walls you start getting it for sure!
    – blackace
    Feb 1, 2013 at 0:11
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    @Marcin: I don't think it's only a matter of "playing it safe", it's also a matter of respect. Collaborating with someone on a paper might mean that there will be things you would have personally written in a different way. It's of course hard to be more precise without the actual paper, but there is a difference between "fixing errors" and "improving expressions". Respecting other people work, even if it means accepting a style that is not perfect, is also an important aspect of collaborating with foreigners.
    – user102
    Feb 1, 2013 at 0:34
  • @CharlesMorisset respect is one thing. But we are talking about the case of an asymmetric power (e.g. student-advisor). From the perspective of an advisor or a professor, he will not immediately face consequences if he pisses off a student. But if a student pisses off a professor, the student may have to face a lot of difficulties. The student may stop getting funded, the student may be put on probation, fox example. So from the student's perspective it is better to think 10 times before they say anything to their advisors.
    – Anonymous
    Feb 1, 2013 at 1:33

I'm also a first year, non-native English speaker PhD, but I've been doing some writing with my Master thesis adviser (native speaker of my language, not English, but very well versed in English and ~2 more languages). In any language, I often have long causal (is that the right word?) sentences, and he sometimes wouldn't agree with my style.

Even though I was the one doing most of the writing, I still feel like I can offer some useful tips. And, before the list, I support everyone arguing strategy and being careful that your actions aren't misinterpreted as disrespectful

  • if it's just typos (spelling), or obvious grammar ("It's advantage" vs. "Its advantage"), just correct it on your own and accompany it with an SVN comment ("Ran text through spellchecker", "Spotted and corrected few minor spelling mistakes")

    If you feel like your professor has an easily-bruised ego, make it sound like not a big deal. Just some routine check-ups and tune-ups you did, nothing major you changed.

  • request in person meetings, or (in case it's not possible to meet in person) video-conference/phone-call meetings or at least ask the guy (nicely!) if it would be okay to collect and send your opinions and confusions on the paper via e-mail once or twice a month or so

  • keep track of passages and expressions that you would change. Rank them if you want, from the ones that are just plain confusing you and which you can not understand, to the ones that sound strange language-wise to the ones you just think you have a better expression for.

    If you sit on that information for a few days, you'll come to terms with some of them, realize that some are really a matter of personal style, and which parts are just simply confusingly written and hard to understand.

  • communicate with the professor, respectfully and diplomatically expressing your concerns. Some suggestions that I would feel comfortable with.

    "I'm not sure if I understood what you meant in this passage here (...). I have interpreted it as (...), is that correct?" (slip your suggestion here)

    "As a non-native English speaker, I am not too familiar with this expression or weather it can be used in this context. Do you think it would be a good idea if we / I checked for an alternate expression?"

    "I had a very hard time to understand this part (...). After going through it and understanding it, I have re-written it in a way that sounds clearer for me. Would you have time to go through this and offer your opinion?"

    "Would you mind interpreting this couple of sentences for me? I do understand the gist of it from my practical work, but I can't seem to put the pieces in place after reading it."

  • this way, you're not imposing your style or writing, and it can not be misinterpreted as "I think my writing is better than yours." But, as papers are written to be understood by others, you expressing your concerns might prompt him to re-think the part of the text.

    If he tries to explain on the spot, and looses himself in the explanation, that should be a clear hint even to the professor that it's not really clearly written.

    There is no chance of you changing the meaning of something you misunderstood. Also, you showed that even though you would write something differently, you respect his style, reasoning and opinion. My ex-supervisor always told me, it's always okay to have an opinion of your own if you can back it up and defend it. If you can both concisely explain to each other how and why you've written a portion of text, it will be easier to reach an understanding.

  • always offer him the chance to do it ("we might" -- it means you) but say that you can implement the changes yourself ("or I can write the potential changes" -- it means you again).

    Offering them to do it shows respect of their opinion, and offering to do it yourself shows commitment and respect of their time. Very diplomatic :)

  • never say you think there is a problem. Saying you have a "problem" is a sign of weakness in academia - so you definetely shouldn't accuse a professor of having one. Look through my post, go ahead: I never used the word "problem" before this paragraph. Not once.

So, shortly, I strongly advise diplomacy. But also, talking to your supervisor. If you offer your suggestions in a way that tell your professor that you value what he's written, his opinion, and his work, he shouldn't have problems doing the same with you. And if he still does have a problem with it... Don't walk. Run! (by @JeffE)

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