Reviewing Foreign Manuscripts

Feb 09 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I recently got a manuscript to review from a specialty journal I occasionally publish in. It came at a time that I was very busy and I only briefly looked over the abstract before accepting it. I've had a lull of reviewing that has lasted about 2 months, so I figured it was time to put in my dues and the paper sounded interesting. I wish I had read the abstract more carefully because the text is a train-wreck and I probably would have been able to tell that was going to be the case if I had not been rushing. In this particular case, the data suck almost as much as the grammar and I don't have any problem tanking it. However, grammatically putrid papers that have a story to tell always leave me conflicted.

On the one hand I can only imagine how difficult it is to write coherent science in another language. It's tough enough for natively English speaking scientists to write science well and I'm pretty sure my career would be over if I suddenly had to write everything in Japanese for my science to get noticed. I give scientists from other countries, especially ones where the system of writing is fundamentally different from ours, a lot of credit for even turning out something that is readable, let alone coherent. As a grad student and even early in my post-doc years I often spent hours correcting all of the grammatical issues in these papers, with some reviews reaching in excess of ten pages. If the science was good and the only thing holding the paper back was the communication of the results, I felt like I could be a major help to foreign scientists by spending the time to make comments to improve the way the paper reads.

These days I just don't have that kind of time to devote to being a high school grammar teacher. I will happily critique the science of any paper I am working on, but my patience for dealing with the communication side of things has dwindled dramatically. I have sent several papers back in the last year or so with the critique "this paper can not move forward until it is heavily edited, preferably by a native English speaker". I realize that this is a significant hurdle for foreign authors, but I have never really felt that it is the reviewer's duty to correct grammar and if the shoe were on the other foot, I would ensure that my work in another language had been proofed by someone who speaks the language I am writing in. I have done this for colleagues in the past and will if asked again in the future. But I see that as very different than my editing responsibility as a reviewer.

I'm curious how others deal with the good science but incoherently written papers that come from foreign authors (realizing that the same can happen from English speaking authors, which is a different problem). I'm sure there is a range of reactions.

8 responses so far

  • Professor in Training says:

    I still try to review the paper but also make a note to both the editor and authors that it needs to be edited by a native English speaker. I've only had one or two that were totally incomprehensible. There are a number of companies that edit papers for non-English-speaking authors and these are sometimes listed on journals' websites (one of my friends works for one such company).

  • tideliar says:

    "It's tough enough for natively English speaking scientists to write science well"ouch...too true!:)It's not your job to copy edit the paper. In my opinion.

  • Phagenista says:

    I agree with PiT... But I am feeling more and more like it's the editor's job to screen some of these manuscripts before they are sent out for review. If a reviewer could sense a potential English language problem from an abstract, the editor should have seen it, and could have asked for improved (via a service or a native English-speaking colleague) manuscript before review takes place. I once thoroughly reviewed a manuscript and included a pretty innocuous line about how the language was confusing and would benefit from being read and revised by a native English speaker. The authors wrote back saying they had X years of experience working in America, and perhaps the reviewer was more familiar with British English. I haven't spent that much time watching Britcoms... and they hadn't improved their text...

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I have no problem reviewing the science in a paper, even if I have to work through the writing a bit. What I just don't have time to do anymore is be the copy editor for these papers, and I don't think that's the reviewer's job anyway. Phagenista - I think that you would see an evolutionary arms race there. If editors used the abstract to make the call, then authors would spend the time or oney to make the abstract passible, without doing the whole manuscript and we will be back in the same boat. That's not to absolve the editors of doing some screening, though.

  • ScientistMother says:

    I see nothing wrong with your position. After all your title is reviewer not editor

  • Candid Engineer says:

    As a graduate student, I was asked my advisor to review a paper like this. What a complete nightmare. I obviously didn't have the opportunity to refuse to review it. I felt obligated to read the thing 3-4 times before I finally got the gist of the science- I tried to focus on that, but also provided lots of grammatical help. But at the end of the day, I'm afraid my comments would have done little without a complete overhaul of the paper and its language.

  • Odyssey says:

    If editors used the abstract to make the call, then authors would spend the time or oney to make the abstract passible, without doing the whole manuscript and we will be back in the same boat. That's not to absolve the editors of doing some screening, though.The editor should be doing much more than just reading the abstract. These things should be caught at the editorial level. And you're absolutely right, it is not the reviewer's job to correct poor English.

  • Anonymous says:

    Just reviewed a paper from Chinese authors. The English was excellent. It made my day. The science wasn't amazing but then again it was a short communication for a low tier journal and I loved the natural history aspects of the study. Far too little natural history gets published even for well studied organisms.

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