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Is poor English grammar and writing style overlooked by peer reviewers and editors in otherwise strong math paper submissions?

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    My first single author paper was rejected twice for poor writing, despite being a very good paper. I only published it when my writing style improved. I published since many weaker papers. – Nick S Jul 13 '17 at 15:47
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    I would venture to say this pretty much depends on the English level of your research community. In some areas, there are many more non-native English speakers. Hence, assuming the paper is readable, then it is usually acceptable. – Prof. Santa Claus Jul 14 '17 at 2:10
  • I rejected a paper because I literally could not understand their methods. I suspect that they made a mistake but it’s entirely possible that I was wrong. My “reject” was worded similar to “methods need to be revised substantially before resubmission”. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 14 '17 at 8:40
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    @Prof.SantaClaus: The worse the reader's English is, the harder it is to understand incorrect English. Native or highly experienced English speakers will automatically correct many mistakes that can completely throw any less experienced speaker. – gnasher729 Jul 15 '17 at 18:44
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    It depends. Reviewers can and often do state in their reports that the language is in dire need of improvement. As long as the ideas have been communicated understandably, they may or may not bother. If the style is very bad, then that needs to be addressed as well. The major publishers have language editors (though I don't know if that is a dying art/profession). Also, in many universities world wide, departments of English language offer their help (even though sometimes their suggestions are hilariously wrong due to special properties of math lingo). – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 16 '17 at 12:49
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Short answer: no

Longer answer: The purpose of the article is to communicate something. If poor grammar and style gets in the way of that goal, then that is something that needs to be addressed before the article can be published. If the paper is indeed strong, then that will typically mean you will get a "revise and resubmit" rather than an outright "reject".

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    +1 I often teach postgrads from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Some of them use imperfect English, but are perfectly clear. Others use imperfect English and I can't make head nor tail out of it. It's when the imperfect English gets in the way of communication that I penalize the students. I give the clear comms, but imperfect, ones feedback, too, but generally not in the form of lower grades. – Peter K. Jul 13 '17 at 11:50
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    FWIW there's many services you can use before you submit a paper to fix those kinds of mistakes. Being at a university, there's probably someone on campus who will do it for a price. And I highly suspect it's easier to fix the grammar and typos (matter of hours) than it is to produce strong mathematics research (years upon years upon years)... – corsiKa Jul 16 '17 at 1:21
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Sometimes (as a referee for a submitted paper) I have provided detailed grammar corrections1. Other times I have just said: "The English is unacceptable, get someone more expert in English to correct it for you." I do seem to recall in one case the editor told me that the journal staff will correct the English, so I should not worry about it, instead only worry about the technical content.

1 éventuel does not mean eventually

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    On a par with "eventually" is "actual". In both cases, the similar-looking words in all languages that I'm acquainted with, except English, have the same meaning, but the English meaning is different. – Andreas Blass Jul 13 '17 at 16:47
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    I once sent the same reply, after less than 15 minutes of review. Even the statement of the theorems included serious grammar errors, and the proofs couldn't be followed. The contents could have been Fields Medal material; no one would have known. – Andrew Lazarus Jul 13 '17 at 22:09
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    If the editorial team correct the English after you have reviewed it, what guarantee is there that they would not introduce errors at that stage? – Andrew Leach Jul 15 '17 at 10:36
  • @AndrewLeach: I don't think this is referee's job to find and fix all mistakes. In particular, the responsibility for those included at post-review phase lies solely with the journal staff and the authors, whether they fix the grammar or not. – tomasz Jul 16 '17 at 2:43
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Are you asking about the "should" or the "is"? It depends on the referee and the editors. I have seen papers published in top venues that would have seriously profited from 5 minutes of proofreading (sometimes even from an automated spellcheck). But I have also seen referees point out rather subtle linguistic errors carefully and in detail (and have done so myself a few times). There is probably no shortage of referees who are willing to rubber-stamp a paper written by a celebrity no matter whether any of it makes sense. I also wouldn't be surprised if an editor feels pressured to publish a paper by a VIP even despite the objections of referees.

There is also a huge distinction between the kind of errors that merely reveal the author to be a foreign speaker, and the kind that make reading difficult. On occasion, a language barrier completely prevents the author from readably communicating a proof; while I cannot blame the author for the "mistake" of being born in the wrong country, I don't hesitate to send back such a paper for revision, after giving as many suggestions as I can (and as concrete as I can) for how the writing could be improved and what pieces of syntax they seem to be missing. Things like this should not lead to rejection of papers, unless the author fails to clarify their work through several revisions; but the paper should not get accepted until this work has been done.

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    Double-blind review still not standard in your discipline, then? – cfr Jul 14 '17 at 2:47
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    @cfr: double-blind cannot work in the presence of the arXiv. I would guess it's on its way out in other disciplines as well... – darij grinberg Jul 14 '17 at 7:02
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    It is still on its way in in mine. There are compelling reasons for double-blind, which is not to say that there are no costs, of course. – cfr Jul 14 '17 at 17:01
  • +1 for emphasizing the difference between reality and good judgment. Reading the question itself, it sounds like something anyone might ask rhetorically after flipping through the pages of some journals in some fields. – Darren Ringer Jul 15 '17 at 21:00
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It may or may not be so with the referee, but it is rarely overlooked by the readers.

Few researchers have the luxury of spending time deciphering bad grammar and convoluted sentence structures: battling typos is more than enough. Moreover, if the community is left with the impression that you write poorly, they will shun your work unless it is brilliant.

Too many spend months working on a project but limited time thinking about presenting the results in a reader-friendly manner. Good grammar, the systematic use of a spell-checker, and adequate clarity result in a win for the authors and the readers.

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This question really makes me remember a good editor, who gave me an opportunity to revise my paper even if the paper was really written by very poor English. That was two years ago, when I submitted my first paper, I got rejections almost from everywhere because of the poor paper writing. Finally, the paper was publicized and now I am a second-year PhD student with 6 papers in hand. They are not top journals but they are all in Q1. All professors grow up from young students. I believe everyone produced bad papers when they were young. It is true that the paper must be publicized in a good format otherwise readers will get confused when reading papers. However, the editor could do more than a rejection. If the paper really has some good things, such as good idea or math, maybe one more opportunity from the editor will give the world one more good professor. Thanks to the editor.

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