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I have been given my first manuscript to review for a journal. The topic is a very good one, it fills a research gap nicely and is an area that I specialise in. However, the execution of the paper is lacking. I am about halfway through making comments on it. The English is consistently poor in both spelling and grammar, and the structure is dire, which makes it hard to follow the main arguments. I am aware that bad English is no reason to reject a paper, but the English in this paper is very confused in many places, sometimes multiple times per paragraph, and it's a trial to follow.

I believe that the paper could only be salvageable after a rewrite, but by a third party. I don't believe the author's English is good enough to bring it up to standard. I do not care about being 'kind' to the author, but the topic is so good that I would love to see it go through, but I am torn between accepting it with majors or recommending rejection. My PhD supervisor has advised me to recommend rejection, but I am still unsure which way to go. Should I recommend acceptance after major revisions in the hope that it will improve based on my [now extensive] advice or just recommend rejection?

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    You cannot "accept" or "reject" it, you can only recommend to the editor and the editor can decide. You can write the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript and your personal opinion that it could go through if the lnguage is dramatically improved and that's it.
    – PsySp
    Oct 9 '17 at 12:12
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    In that case write your brutally honest opinion to the editor. Nothing wrong with that! Will be up to the editor on how to interpret this and what to decide next (based on the other reports).
    – PsySp
    Oct 9 '17 at 12:15
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    bad English is no reason to reject a paper — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Oct 9 '17 at 13:34
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    Are you distinguishing between whether the between whether the topic is exciting to you, and whether the paper is a well-reasoned and good research paper on the topic? From the OP's comments, I get impression that it is both the language and organization that make it difficult to tell (OP can't follow arguments, etc). While I can agree in principle with @JeffE that bad English (on its own) is no reason to reject a paper, when one can't figure out the arguments/validity/etc, because of language, it is a reason to reject.
    – Carol
    Oct 9 '17 at 16:15
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    While I can agree in principle with @JeffE that bad English (on its own) is no reason to reject a paper — Sorry I wasn't clear. I think bad English (on its own) is definitely sufficient reason to reject a paper.
    – JeffE
    Oct 9 '17 at 18:32
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+200

I would reverse the question:

Should you accept a weak paper written in terrible English, just because it's about a topic you like, a niche you care about or a something nobody else is writing about?

Like mentioned in some of the comments: this could actually be detrimental for the overal interest in the subtopic, and this publication might prevent more capable people from publishing the same thing (but better) because something is already out there.

In addition, the low level of English and lack of structure might also let you fill in too many blanks and give their reasoning too much value, just because you're very comfortable with the topic. Are you sure a pass by a language editing service would fix this? If it has to be rewritten by an "expert in the field" that person might as well just write the whole thing from scratch.

Finally: rejection is (most of the time) not the end of a manuscript. You can write a shorter review message with your opinion and advice and reject it. In a few months you'll see the manuscript being published in another journal, either re-written so it got accepted in a decent journal, or published in a journal with much lower standards.

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    This was very insightful and gave me plenty to think about. The article has lots of information in it, and the author has interviewed plenty of people but hardly includes any interview material. Most unusual. You're right, I could be just pasting in my own understanding of the topic to fill in any gaps, but to other readers it might be quite confusing. Thank you very much.
    – C26
    Oct 12 '17 at 8:37
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Jeff Offutt has a very insightful scheme for calculating the final recommendation based on technical, presentation, and omission grounds (source):

enter image description here

The fields in the matrix correspond to different types of problems:

Technical Problems Minor: Mistakes in background, related work; Moderate: Does not affect the key results; Major: Changes the key results; Critical: Negates the key results.

Presentation Problems Minor: Typos, spelling, grammar; Moderate: Make understanding the paper harder (organization, notation, repeated grammar); Major: Prevent understanding of part of the paper; Critical: Prevent understanding or evaluating a key result;

Problems of Omission Minor: Omitted background, related work; Moderate: Not part of the key results; Major: Missing in the key results (proof or experiment, lack of control in experiment); Critical: Must be in the paper to evaluate the result (experimental study, etc) or not enough results.

The source also provides additional information and context.

Based on this scheme, I think the appropriate recommendation in your case would be a major revision.

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    This is a very interesting and useful source, thank you.
    – C26
    Oct 9 '17 at 14:40
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    Under "Problems of Omission", you're missing "didn't cite my papers".
    – Paul Price
    Oct 9 '17 at 19:01
  • According to the grid, one should only recommend rejection if there are major or critical technical issues, regardless of whether spelling, grammar, and structure are dreadful. If an author majorly revised a badly-written and structured paper, there is still a chance of rejection after a second review. Would it simply not be fairer to recommend rejection having given advice for resubmission so that the journal can focus on accepting better papers?
    – C26
    Oct 10 '17 at 11:20
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    @C26 Bad language should not protect from rejection in case there are major technical problems, but bad language should not be a reason to reject a paper that is fine from a technical perspective.
    – Mark
    Oct 11 '17 at 16:18
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You do not accept or reject the paper. You recommend a decision to the editor, and the editor decides.

You should copy what you have just written in your question to your review: it is an excellent assessment of the quality of the paper that clearly indicates why it has merit and where it needs to be improved.

If you think it has a chance to be published after being rewritten: "major revisions". If not: reject.

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If the manuscript seems to be technically sound, just because of English you can not reject it. Different graphical finding can give you the feeling about the good and bad of the work ...

if its good, put up your thoughts on the paper and leave the decision to the editor...

mostly in these cases editors tend to ask authors to give one more look on their manuscript and shares your views with them ...

it would be really ok. the only favour you can do it to keep the tone neutral while suggesting or making comments on the manuscript.

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