May 22, 2012

How Can We Help Researchers For Whom English is a Second Language Write Good Papers?

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:18 am by mariawolters

Neuroskeptic pointed out one instance where plagiarism may be forgivable – when authors whose first language is not English copy small passages from papers to put together their literature review

Now, if authors are clever enough to write an academic paper, their English should be good enough to summarise complex papers in a few words, right?

Wrong. Writing in a foreign language is very difficult, and writing a complex text such as an academic paper in a foreign language is a highly specialised skill. Native speakers of English, most of whom would not be able to write a paper in another language, don’t realise just how difficult this is. My own English is passable, but then I won a Second Prize in the Federal German Foreign Language Contest (there were several first and several second prizes) with English as my primary competition language, have been living in Scotland for 10+ years. And I still make mistakes.

Writing skills need to be maintained I entered the Contest as a 17-year-old with French as my second language. For my Abitur (A-levels), I wrote a long essay about the writer and philosopher Albert Camus in French – today, I can hardly string a blog post together, even though I can still read and understand Camus just fine. In fact, English is the only foreign language in which I can write papers; I would be utterly out of my league if I had to write in Spanish or French.

Now imagine that you don’t spend a lot of time writing English. All of a sudden, you need to put together a paper in the language. Writing well in one’s mother tongue is hard; finding the right turns of phrase in a foreign language is even harder, especially when there are strict page limits, and your field does not have very rigid structures for academic papers.r What do you do?

And, most importantly, as a reviewer, how do you help authors who struggle with their writing?

My own strategy represents a trade-off between time required to review the papers I’ve taken on and diligence. I point out major errors, in particular where terms are used in ways that prevent an English speaker from understanding what is meant, but I let most of the small things slide, in particular when my verdict is “revise and resubmit”. I then provide detailed feedback on the resubmission.

Ideally, journals would have mentors or specialised, paid editors that can help people who struggle with writing English; in the absence of such resources, I often recommend that authors have their papers proofread by a native speaker of English. I know that this can come across as condescending, especially if the authors have worked very hard to write an acceptable paper.

So, what can we do to address this problem as a community? Turning a blind eye to small instances of plagiarism? There are a couple of other options that are relatively inexpensive

  • Develop clear language standards, and enforce them when reviewers whose native language is English expect literary masterpieces.
  • Put together links on field-specific English for Academic Purposes that authors can access.
  • Provide guidance on rewording results and findings from papers for the literature review that helps authors negotiate the line between reporting and plagiarism
  • Provide reviewers with the option of submitting annotated PDFs of the paper together with their review – it’s very cumbersome to make a long list of page, line, and paragraph numbers, copy the bad wording, and type out the correction, especially if line numbers do not line up properly with the lines in the text (or when there are no line numbers at all)

What are your suggestions?

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