Anne Coghill began this session by pointing out that every year, publishers see more submissions from authors who use English as a second language (ESL). Donald Samulack added a startling reality check: In 2015, China will produce more research publications than the United States. We all know that scientists using ESL face greater difficulty when required to publish in English rather than their first language. David Hanauer conducted a study to quantify that additional burden.1,2
Challenges of Writing Science in ESL
The study surveyed 148 professors and researchers in Ensenada, Mexico (60 miles south of the United States), who write science in both ESL and their first language. On average, they perceived scientific writing in ESL to be 24.1% more difficult, the final written article 24.1% less satisfactory, and the anxiety induced by the writing process itself 21.7% greater.
Samulack emphasized that authors in China who use ESL are particularly vulnerable to profit-seeking predatory groups soliciting submissions, reviews, or editorial board members. These authors may not benefit from coordinated efforts to publically identify such groups, such as Beall’s list, because of government censorship of blogs and other material published with WordPress. Pressure to publish or perish is intensified by the fact that salaries and academic appointments are determined by formulas incorporating publication statistics, including author order in bylines. Samulack also described a service-oriented culture where it is common and acceptable to seek support services to reach career goals. And because authors using ESL in diverse countries are often unfamiliar with principles of publication ethics that Westerners take for granted—all three speakers made this point—unwitting breaches of those principles are frequent.
Jeri Marie Wright emphasized positive incentives for publishers and members of the international scientific community to support authors who face these challenges: The legitimate literature will grow in breadth as publishers start to recognize the value of the science being done in developing nations. Moreover, journal editors personally involved in education and mentoring find the experience deeply rewarding.
Hanauer identified universities, research institutions, professional organizations, and publishers as stakeholders responsible for providing the needed support, first saying that “it is both unrealistic and unjust to expect every international scientist to develop…to the level required in order to write publishable manuscripts in English as a second language by themselves and without adequate support.”
Similarly, Wright quoted Serap Aksoy, co-editor in chief of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases: “We are keen to publish high-quality research papers as well as level the playing field for all scientists in our global community. Particularly, we are keen to receive good papers from researchers in disease-endemic countries…I hope more of the publication enterprise will adopt the responsibility to expand and enhance the global scientific community.”
To that end, in 2014, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases began offering free workshops and correspondence courses conducted by journal editors. Workshops are organized for small groups and in multiple languages to provide detailed guidance on writing, the submission process, and publishing practices. Topics include how to write a cover letter, title, and abstract; IMRAD structure of journal articles; and general principles of good writing. Workshops have been conducted in over half a dozen countries across three continents. Editage has conducted in-person workshops in five countries and webinars in 23. Wright and Samulack both said that authors are eager to participate and find the programs incredibly helpful.
Answers to the Challenges of Writing Science in ESL
Universities, research institutions, professional organizations, and publishers can support authors who use ESL by
- offering editing and translating services
- supporting travel to international conferences
- hosting international conferences
- promoting ESL networking
- explaining standard publishing procedures in detail
- teaching publication ethics
- teaching general writing skills
- identifying papers in ESL at the time of submission
- copyediting ESL submissions before review
- educating reviewers about ESL
- recruiting scientists who use ESL to serve on editorial boards
- publishing on topics of concern around the world
- providing resources to researchers at all career stages
- seeking submissions from diverse countries
- translating journal instructions into multiple languages
- promoting gold open access
- considering culture to choose the best training platform.
- Hanauer D, Englander K. Quantifying the burden of writing research articles in a second language: Data from Mexican scientists. Written Communication, 2011;28(4):403–416.
- Hanauer D, Englander K. Scientific Writing in a Second Language. Anderson, SC: Parlor; 2013.