Publishing in English Presents Challenges for International Authors
Publishing in English Presents Challenges for International Authors

Publishing in English Presents Challenges for International Authors

When submitting manuscripts to Western journals, authors face issues that go beyond language barriers.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst
Mar 10, 2020

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China is the world leader in the quantity of scientific publications, with a total of 426,000, or nearly one-fifth the total number of 2016 science and engineering papers listed in the Scopus database, according to a 2018 report from the National Science Foundation. Taking into account Chinese-language journals not listed in Scopus, a separate analysis published last year concluded that the country’s overall contribution was even greater, with more than one-third the global scientific articles published in 2016 coming from China. While these numbers point to a greater scientific profile for China, they also mean that an increasing number of researchers for whom English is not their first language are now navigating the complex submission and peer review system.

“For better or worse, English is the language of science,” says Tom Lang, a consultant and freelance editor of scientific papers. He notes that poor English can lead to a manuscript’s rejection, and finding the right help to improve a paper’s readability may not be straightforward. Moreover, non-native speakers face challenges in navigating an English-based publishing system, and cultural differences in how researchers present their work and the publishing process itself can further stand in the way of landing publications in high-impact journals.

“Sometimes people think it’s just a matter of language, and I think language is often an important part,” says Texas A&M University’s Barbara Gastel, a professor who coordinates the science journalism graduate program at Texas A&M University and has worked for decades to improve the international communication of science. “But it’s beyond that. There’s also matters of different [cultural] norms . . . and just knowing how the system works.”

Despite the challenges, the data don’t lie: publications by international authors are on the rise. According to the 2018 NSF report, India and several developing countries, in addition to China, continued an upward trend in the volume of scientific publications produced annually. And a 2014 study identified greater growth rates in research spending in China, South Korea, and Singapore than in the US. Fortunately, when needed, researchers can often receive help, whether from colleagues, mentors, paid editors, or their institutions, to improve their manuscripts prior to submission and maximize their chances of success.

Language clean up

Journals vary somewhat in their approaches to manuscripts with poor English. Nature and Science publishing groups say they would not reject a manuscript on the basis of poor language alone, but most journal spokespersons and editors who spoke with The Scientist say that for a manuscript to be considered, its language has to be good enough for peer reviewers to understand.

“I think there are generally accepted reasons why an article is rejected. Incomprehensible or misleading language is one,” says Pippa Smart, editor of Learned Publishing, the journal of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers. “Some journals might make it more transparent than others.”

Language issues are not exclusive to non-native English speakers.

In lieu of rejecting a manuscript outright, journal editors will sometimes tell authors that the English needs work before it can be considered. Ana Marušić, a biomedical researcher at the University of Split School of Medicine in Croatia and coeditor in chief of the Journal of Global Health, recalls an editor telling her years ago that she could pay to have the journal edit a submission, or she could do it herself. If she did it herself, the editor wrote, there would be no guarantee the manuscript would be acceptable. “It was a lot of money at that time,” Marušić says. “We did it ourselves, but it did strike me as something that was almost predatory—kind of blackmailing us that we have to go with them for language services.”

There are few journals that take on such language editing themselves, especially before peer review. Journal editors typically work on a manuscript after it’s been provisionally accepted for publication. More commonly, if a journal editor encourages an author to seek language editing services, she will recommend a service that the journal has a partnership at a discounted rate, or point authors to a list of reputable language editing services on the journal’s website.

Still, the “language polishing market,” as Lang calls it, is riddled with high-volume, low-quality services. For six months several years ago, Lang worked remotely for one such company, which was based in Taiwan, before he quit because he believed that the marketing materials misled customers by promising their services would give manuscripts a higher probability of getting published in a Western journal. But the manuscripts he worked on had no chance to begin with, he says. “I never received an article that I thought was publishable. The language was bad but the science was worse. . . . The company should have returned [them] for ethical reasons.” Working independently, Lang says he’s received only two papers where he felt that “the science was fatally flawed,” and in those cases he returned the papers to the authors without a charge and explained why he had done so.

“There’s the whole range” of language editing services out there, says Gastel. “Some are really terrific editing services . . . [that] really improve the content. And then there are other editing services—what they provide is pretty superficial and perhaps not even always correct.”

Even if researchers can identify high-quality editing services, they may not be able to afford them. Language editing fees can be prohibitive for researchers in low- or middle-income countries, where such costs are often not covered by government research funding. Actual costs vary widely, but can run up to several thousand Chinese Yuan (hundreds of US dollars), according to Longjiang Fan, a crop scientist at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, who used language services for each of his manuscripts early in his career and still occasionally does so. In some cases, these costs can be paid with grant money, Fan writes in an email to The Scientist. In other instances, institutions will reimburse for editing services, adds Hong Xie, a lecturer of biomedical reading and writing at Sichuan University, in an email.

When government funding cannot be applied to editing services, some Chinese researchers find a loophole, says Fan Xiaohui, an English professor and expert on medical writing and editing at Xi’an Jiaotong University, and an editor for the Journal of Xian Jiaotong University and Journal of Pharmaceutical Analysis. “A few big language services can provide an invoice for something other than the language service, and it can be reimbursed by a governmental grant,” she writes in an email to The Scientist.

Beyond the language polishing industry

Recognizing that many researchers in China and around the world simply can’t afford language editing services, and that those who can risk receiving poor-quality services, Gastel and others have for decades been working to help non-native English speakers improve their writing and editing skills. Gastel has traveled to numerous countries in Asia, Africa, and Central America to give workshops and help develop a network of experts who can help coach other researchers in English writing.

Gastel first began “training the trainers” in China in the early 1980s, teaching scientific writing to faculty members at what is now Peking University Health Science Center. A little more than a decade later, with a grant from the China Medical Board (CMB), she helped launch an international program to help increase the number of biomedical publications by researchers in China and other Asian countries. “As far as I know, this was the first effort” to systematically train Chinese scientists on publishing in Western journals, says Lang, whom Gastel recruited to the program in 1996. “She was there before it was the place to be.”

We can always work on the language and beautify it in some way, but the greatest problem is the study wasn’t done well.

—Ana Marušić, University of Split School of Medicine in Croatia

Gastel, Lang, and others trained more than 50 “trainers” over more than a decade, and Lang estimates that about half of those people continue to teach and mentor researchers in English writing, including Fan Xiaohui. “A sizeable proportion of the editorial trainees from the CMB program went on to teach scientific writing at their institutions, help students and colleagues revise scientific papers, or both,” Gastel says.

Another decade later, Gastel helped with the 2007 launch of AuthorAID, an initiative spearheaded by Anthony Robbins of Tufts University School of Medicine and Phyllis Freeman of the University of Massachusetts Boston, both emeritus editors of the Journal of Public Health Policy. Robbins and Freeman’s idea was to create a multipronged program to help authors from developing countries write up and publish their work. They teamed up with the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) and recruited Gastel to be a part of the group. She helped organize and teach workshops in numerous countries, from Bangladesh and Pakistan to Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka.  

Today, AuthorAID no longer has funding for workshops, but it still runs an online writing course and helps authors in need connect with mentors to guide them. In an independent evaluation of AuthorAID published in 2017, more than 85 percent of survey respondents said that these resources had improved their understanding of the publishing process, 82 percent said that AuthorAID had boosted their confidence, and 56 percent said that the program had helped them get published. Gastel still does workshops through other international organizations or at individual institutions, and she continues to work toward building self-sustaining ecosystems of publishing authors.

Short of attending such a workshop or taking the AuthorAID course, researchers can find help closer to home. Some universities offer language editing services, and friends and colleagues are often the best editors. International collaborators whose first language is English are a valuable resource when available, says Longjiang Fan, who adds that recently, after six months of revisions with US collaborator Kenneth Olsen of Washington University in St. Louis, their manuscript on the origin and evolution of a type of weedy rice was quickly accepted by Genome Biology. Others note that even among non-native speakers, having more-experienced authors review the paper before submission can help catch language problems as well as other issues that might delay or derail publication.

“There’s a cadre of people in China, probably at every university, who know what Western publishing is like,” says Lang. “And they can mentor younger colleagues.”

Publishing norms

Experts who spoke with The Scientist about language issues in publishing repeatedly emphasized two points. First, these issues are not exclusive to non-native English speakers. “I have edited many papers that need some editing help, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person’s first language is not English,” says Margaret Winker, a retired journal editor who previously worked at JAMA and PLOS Medicine

That’s also been Gastel’s experience. “I often also find [structural or scientific] problems in manuscripts by native English speakers in the United States,” she says. 

Sometimes people think it’s just a matter of language. But it’s beyond that. There’s also matters of different cultural norms and just knowing how the system works.

—Barbara Gastel, Texas A&M University

Second, for manuscripts with poor English, language is usually the least of the paper’s problems. Deep-seated methodological or organizational issues must be resolved before improving the grammatical, syntactical, and vocabulary-related errors will make any difference. “We can always work on the language and beautify it in some way, but the greatest problem is the study wasn’t done well,” says Marušić. For biomedical manuscripts, she adds, “my opinion is that it is because of lack of education in research methodology early in medical education.”

“[T]he most important thing in publishing in international journals is their rigorous study design,” agrees Xie, who was a visiting scholar of Gastel’s in 2008. “Language is not the first reason for rejection.”

Gastel suspects that a variety of factors can contribute to deeper issues with manuscripts. These include authors’ “insufficient background in research, unfamiliarity with expectations regarding scientific papers, inadequate effort, and general muddleheadedness,” she says. “In lower- and middle-income countries, and probably in some poorly funded settings within countries such as the United States, lack of sufficient research resources may well also be a factor.” 

Even for manuscripts without serious flaws in the science or the overall presentation of the study, the challenges that face researchers in countries where English is not the primary language extend beyond lingo, Gastel adds. Authors sometimes struggle with online submission systems, for example, and lack of familiarity with the norms of the journal’s process can also impede the path to publication, she says. 

She recalls a researcher she met at a workshop in Nepal. A journal had told him that his paper was accepted contingent upon revisions, and he was distraught because he disagreed with one of the revisions, Gastel says. The man told Gastel after her lecture that he had thought he would have to withdraw his submission so it would not be published with the inaccurate edit. Then he heard Gastel explain that a researcher in his position can explain the situation to the editor and come up with a mutually agreeable solution. 

“The next day, he comes in to the workshop with this huge smile on his face,” Gastel recalls. The editor had already approved his proposed change and accepted the manuscript, she says. “This was a matter of his just knowing the system, and then he ended up with a publication.”

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist. Email her at jakst@the-scientist.com.

Correction (March 10): This story has been updated from its original version to correctly reflect Barbara Gastel’s position as a professor who coordinates the science journalism graduate program at Texas A&M University and to clarify that Hong Xie didn't participate in the China Medical Board Program but was a visiting scholar of Gastel’s in 2008. The Scientist regrets the errors.