Recently I submitted a manuscript to an international journal. It was accepted with a minor revision, but I am worried about the reviewers’ comments. The first reviewer commented that the paper is well written but it still needs some English improvements. The second reviewer also commented that English improvements are required.

I have gotten similar comments regarding English in my earlier publications, but in those times I used to submit manuscripts without making an English native check. (However, I always do an English native check after getting comments about English.)

This time, I submitted my manuscript after making an English native check by a reputed company (who had worked for my earlier publications). The only modifications I made after this check were those suggested by the language check service: for example, where they said to add a "the" in a sentence. I added a "the". I didn't make any modifications other than those I was directed to make by the language check service.

Still, I got a similar suggestion to improve the English.

So what should I think about the reviews? Is it a frequent feedback that all reviewers give?

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    Also note that the service may not be as good as you believe it is. See e.g. How should I handle poor English in reviewing an article that claims to be proofread by two native English speakers?, which asks about this situation from the reviewers' point of view. – ff524 Oct 14 '16 at 7:27
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    It is hard to decide what happened. On one hand, I have seen such companies doing a very poor job. Also, it is hard to correct language when beyond the grammar/spelling level, so there might be a problem like that. On the other hand, many times people give this "poor English" comment on manuscripts, while the reviewers themselves are clearly not capable speakers of the language. So if they had some specific comments on grammar or spelling, correct those, make some minor changes, and tell the editor you done your best / got checked it with a native speaker. – Greg Oct 14 '16 at 11:43
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    Take the reviews to the language service and get your money back, or further work for the same fee. – Marquis of Lorne Oct 16 '16 at 22:27
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    Anecdotally, I believe that many language checking services are scams. Their employees often have a very poor grasp of English. They advertise a service that they are completely unable to provide. I'd be more inclined to trust the reviewers who work for the journal. – Dawood ibn Kareem Oct 18 '16 at 8:24
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    Maybe it's a bit unclear in the question, but "well written but it still needs some English improvements"/"English improvements are required" sounds quite different from "English is poor". – O. R. Mapper Dec 2 '18 at 22:16

There are several possibilities here, although generally they all have the same solution.

The English is poor or incorrect and the company did not check it well

It is possible that the company that checked your article did a bad job. This happens. Maybe the service did not have a native English speaker check your article. Maybe they had a bad day. Maybe they don't provide good service, and you just got lucky on previous times. It's hard to say.

The English is grammatical, but not idiomatic

It is possible that the company that checked your article fixed all the grammatical mistakes, but that there are still some phrasings which are not idiomatic or particularly natural. This is essentially a function of how detailed the corrections were. For example, here is the first paragraph of your post:

Recently I had submitted a Manuscript to an International Journal. Though it is accepted as a Minor revision, but I am worried about the reviewer's comment. First reviewer has commented that the Paper is well written, still needs some English improvements. Second reviewer has also commented that English improvements is required.

There are some small grammatical errors, and I can correct them as follows (in bold):

Recently I had submitted a manuscript to an international journal. Though it is was accepted as a minor revision, but I am worried about the reviewer's comment. The first reviewer has commented that the paper is well written, but still needs some English improvements. The second reviewer has also commented that English improvements is are required.

While this paragraph is now grammatically correct, it still does not feel like it was written by a native speaker, and the way some words are used is a little odd. (E.g. using though and but in the second sentence; you really only need one of them.) So, a more thorough checking would suggest edits like the following:

Recently I had submitted a manuscript to an international journal. Though it is was accepted as a Minor revision pending minor revisions, but I am worried about the reviewers's comments. The first reviewer has commented that the paper is well written, but still needs some English improvements. The second reviewer has also commented that English improvements is are required.

The checking service could have done the first step (making it grammatically correct) without following through on the second step (making it idiomatic). The second step is much harder, of course, as it requires knowledge of what style is appropriate for your field (and for the journal you are writing for), and, to some extent, it requires technical knowledge of whatever you're writing about.

The English is fine, the reviewer is just being picky

Academic articles are complex and often involve detailed theoretical or technical discussion. At times, they can be hard to follow. Sometimes this complexity is interpreted as poor language skills, and reviewers complain. I know more than one native English speaker who has received reviews asking them to check their article with a native speaker. In essence, this criticism relates to how the content is presented rather than linguistic concerns like grammaticality or phrasing.

The solution

It is not easily possible for you to determine right now which of the above scenarios has happened. However, a big help would be for you to show the manuscript to a trusted colleague who is a native speaker of English, and ask them how it reads. If the English is really atrocious, then you know you have a problem with the checking service; if there are some unusual phrases but it's otherwise fine, then you know the problem is that it's occasionally un-idiomatic; and if there are no obvious problems, then it's probably just an issue of reviewer interpretation.

The other step you should take is to re-read your manuscript and attempt to make complex exposition more clear. (This is a step I advise everyone to do at basically every stage of the writing process...) This will help your article in the case that the English was fine but the reviewer was just confused.

Finally, breathe and relax. Your article was accepted, congratulations! Clearly the reviewers and the editor thought that the scientific content was sufficient to merit publication.

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    "Native English speaker" as a competent language professional is often a false assumption. Most "native speakers" I know are pretty terrible at grammar, sentence structure, semantics, or appropriateness of context. Foreign speakers of English learn the mechanics of the language more rigourously than native speakers tend to. That said, a foreign speaker will usually fall over at idiom or colloquialisms, as well as industry-specific terminology. This is why professional editors and proofreaders exist - you need to make sure you're using somebody qualified, not just "native" to the language. – flith Oct 14 '16 at 12:28
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    Though your point about correct vs. idiomatic usage may be valid, the example you gave doesn't really illustrate this. Most if not all of the second set of modifications aren't stylistic choices but corrections. "I had submitted" is a use of past perfect without a past time correlative. “has commented” and “has also commented” are uses of present perfect to refer to well-defined past times. Neither of these are correct grammar. – Some_Guy Oct 14 '16 at 13:02
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    Furthermore, while it technically parses grammatically “to accept as a minor revision” is obviously not the correct choice of phrase here. Again, this isn’t a question of style or unidiomatic language, but of a mistake. This should be flagged up in any decent English review process in the same way that, while it parses, “he took the cup through his mouth” would be (likely as a mistake for “he took the cup to his mouth”). While grammatical, “I told him that if he was feeling down, he should come out” would likely be changed to “go out”. Unless we were writing in the context of sexuality. – Some_Guy Oct 14 '16 at 13:03
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    @filth Whether ""Native English speaker" as a competent language professional is often a false assumption. " is true or not doesn't matter (I would contest that most native English speaking academics have fairly decent grammar skills, they just often don't apply them). What matters is the language people use, and ""natives" to the language" in OPs field are going to be MUCH better at editing his paper for his field than a "Native English Professional". – Sam Oct 14 '16 at 13:31
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    One more possibility: Maybe field-specific phrases are wrong or used in the wrong place. A native speaker who’s not familiar with the field wouldn’t know the difference (e.g. “software beetle” instead of bug). – Michael Oct 14 '16 at 16:16

Is it a common comment that all reviewers do?

It's a comment I saw several times at the beginning of my career, but with a little attention it became rarer and rarer.

I think that there can be two issues.

First, as remarked by ff524, if you modify the text after the language check, you can introduce errors that go undetected. I'm a non-native English speaker too, but I can recognize many grammar errors in your question: don't take it as a judgement, but you really ought to consider that you might have introduced new errors.

Second, the English proofreader likely lacks the technical knowledge to understand the details of your manuscript, and they might involuntarily introduce other errors.

As a non-native speaker, I frequently use the correction service freely offered by my university; however, I work side by side with the proofreader to explain the technical usage of certain words. For instance, in my field, we use the word realization with an uncommon acceptation (you can find an explanation in this answer on Physics.SE) which typically makes the proofreader comment: "Are you sure that you want to use realization here?". A proofreader left alone would probably modify realization with a technically incorrect word.

Here are my 2 cents:

  1. Work together with the proofreader.
  2. Avoid modifying the text after the last check, until you have improved your mastery of English.
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    @Kayan This: "the English proofreader unlikely has the technical knowledge to understand the details of your manuscript" is the most important part I think. Technical writing has a lot of specialized word usage that is uncommon or weird, and missing some specialized idioms or vocabulary would certainly make me reply that writing needs improvement. Cont. – dtldarek Oct 14 '16 at 13:46
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    Cont. For example, word "graph" has many synonyms including "chart", "diagram", "plot", etc. While you can use "plot of a function" instead of "graph of a function" in some contexts (like calculus), "bipartite plot" rather than "bipartite graph" is just bad English if the context is graph theory. Note that both are just areas of mathematics, and with so many fields that science has, how can you blame them? Fin. – dtldarek Oct 14 '16 at 13:49
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    @dtldarek Can confirm. I used to work for such a service. I identified my areas of specialty when I signed up, but it quickly became clear that they didn't have editors to cover every field, and I was frequently sent jobs outside my specialties. – Geoffrey Brent Dec 3 '18 at 1:03
  • @GeoffreyBrent How far from your original field it usually was? E.g., if I would need to check a different branch of math at least I would be aware of some of the quirks and could check the cited papers; however, with something like economics or physics (which are not that far from math), I would need way too much time to do even a decent job. – dtldarek Dec 4 '18 at 8:28
  • @dtldarek I'm mostly a statistician, though I did my PhD in biomed eng (mostly mech eng) and I've moonlighted in economics. About two-thirds of what they sent me was maths/stats of some description (not always close to my experience) but they also sent me papers about optical equipment, electric battery design, and software development life cycle. And, yeah, the time required to do an adequate job meant it ended up being ~ minimum wage, which is one of several reasons why I ditched that job after a few months. – Geoffrey Brent Dec 4 '18 at 11:26

Unfortunately, there is not much to interpret. If the reviewers found your English to be below the journal's standard, you really have no other choice than to accept this. Language standards seem to differ somewhat between different journals, with some being stricter than others, and in general the comment that you received is not simply a default (see this answer for details).

Since you were asked to make "minor revisions", there won't be another round of reviewing. You will most likely have to briefly explain those revisions in your cover letter, but ultimately it is up to you how much work you put into them.

Another question altogether is how to improve the language of the manuscript or whether you could get a refund from the editing service. There are various answer to questions like these on this site (1, 2, 3, 4).

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    Not only can language standards differ between journals, they can also differ between reviewers and between editors for the same journal. In fact, my own standards as a reviewer can vary. If a manuscript is in nearly perfect English but has a minor grammatical error, I'd point that out; if a manuscript has lots of major grammatical errors, I'd mention those but let a minor error go. – Andreas Blass Oct 15 '16 at 19:33

The reviewers don't know whether or not you hired a company to check your article. All they see is your article, and apparently they both saw too many errors in there.

The fact that your article was checked by a reputable company does not mean there are no errors: there are wildly different levels of service they can offer, ranging from a quick check by a student who is a native speaker, to a detailed check by a specialized team consisting of an official translator who is a native English speaker, an official translator who has the same mother tongue as you do, and someone who knows something about the discipline you are working in. The latter will probably get you a better result, but will cost a lot more. Your company can offer any level of service along this range and be reputable, as long as the company clearly communicates what is offering.

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I don't think that a translator can really proofread a technical paper. When I have written the first paper, for proofreading I have given it to a peer who is working in a related topic, and also to an english teacher. After I have read the corrections, they both have done crucial mistakes related to the ideas presented in the manuscript and adapted the text in a wrong way. Although the style in the paper was improved, not all the changes were properly made, and I had to recheck all the sentences. In the end, don't thrust too much in someone else who have not worked on the paper and don't understand the paper to proofread the final version.

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    If your point is that you have to be careful when implementing suggestions from translators, then I fully agree. If your point is that translators cannot proofread technical papers at all, then I disagree. – Maarten Buis Oct 15 '16 at 7:52
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    I’m not sure why you’ve singled out translators here (there’s no mention of translation or translators in the question). Regardless of what the topic is—whether it’s even academic or technical or not—it is always your responsibility and duty as a writer to check every single correction/suggestion that anyone reading your writing makes. Doesn’t matter if they’re proofreaders, peers from your own field, or anything else. In the end, only you know exactly what you want to say. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 16 '16 at 11:44

You shouldn't take it so hard. You are probably a great scientist. Anyway, it matters that your paper follows a logical progression of words to the main observations and conclusions. That comes with experience. However, the English language does not make a lot of sense. For example, a pineapple isn't any kind of apple. Similarly, "heads up" does not mean to lift your head up. It means to get down on the ground to dodge something. Of course, this isn't scientific lingo.

What I suggest that you do is that you ask one of your department colleagues, who has a general understanding of the subject matter, such as bioinformatics, to review your paper in a personal matter sharing some coffee. I'm sure a fellow researcher would be glad to help you because if your research publication gets high marks, then the institution gets higher marks.

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