Write English well? Help get published someone who doesn’t

27 01 2015

imagesI’ve written before about how sometimes I can feel a little exasperated by what seems to be a constant barrage of bad English from some of my co-authors. No, I’m not focussing solely on students, or even native English speakers for that matter. In fact, one of the best (English) science writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working is a Spaniard (he also happens to write particularly well in Castellano). He was also fairly high up on the command-of-English ladder when he started out as my PhD student. So. There.

In other words, just because you grew up speaking the Queen’s doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll bust a phrase as easily as Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gould or Flannery; in fact, it might put you at a decided disadvantage compared to your English-as-a-second- (-third-, -fourth-, -fifth- …) language peers because they avoided learning all those terrible habits you picked up as you grunted your way through adolescence. Being forced to learn the grammar of another language often tends to make you grasp that of your mother tongue a little better.

So regardless of your background, if you’ve managed to beat the odds and know in your heart that you are in fact a good writer of science in English (you know who you are), I think you have a moral duty to help out those who still struggle with it. I’m not referring necessarily to the inevitable corrections you’ll make to your co-authors’ prose when drafting manuscripts1. I am instead talking about going out of your way to help someone who really, really needs it.

It’s not easy to be altruistic in this way. Hell, I’m not innately charitable myself, and I remember being fairly focussed on yours truly during the worst of the uphill academic climb. I didn’t have time to worry about a budding scientist in China, Indonesia, Brazil, or wherever who was as confused as a spider on cocaine when it came to mastering the peculiarities of the English language. Many years later I realise that I should have made the time.

I admit that sometimes I am a slow learner. In my case the opportunity to assist wasn’t something I sought actively; rather, it was more or less forced on me. In one of my now-regular visits to China a few years back, I was politely requested to assist with some student projects after having been wined and dined (and flown and lodged) by my generous Chinese hosts. After the official symposium wrapped up, I was placed in a small, windowless classroom, plunked down next to a smiling young person, and told to ‘help’. Collaboration doesn’t get much more contrived than that.

So I did my duty with some inner grumbling, and tried to listen to what the student was attempting to communicate through that difficult Chinese-to-English translation barrier. It wasn’t easy, but after about an hour I was struck by how (a) amazing the dataset was, (b) meticulous and dedicated the student was, and (c) how this was going to be a lot more fascinating than I had originally expected. Of course, I wasn’t just there to tweak his sentence structure – I have a few other scientific skills up my sleeve too. That said, it was probably the deep need for good English communication that got it all started.

Long story shortened – several years and papers later, I have a rich and mutually beneficial collaboration with some wonderful Chinese colleagues with whom I would never have conceived of working prior to that awkward classroom experience. Not only do I consider them good friends, I have been introduced to an entire field of ecology that wasn’t on my radar beforehand. The experience has opened so many doors for me that I’ve lost track of the count. In essence, it was a fantastic opportunity.

To move away for the moment from the selfish aspects of this collaboration, I believe another and infinitely more important benefit of such collaborations is that if they do not happen, the scientific results don’t tend to end up seeing the light of publication day quite as easily. How often do we lament that there is insufficient science coming out of country x, y or z? If we only knew what treasures we could prevent from being consigned to the dungeons of the scientific lingua franca, our disciplines could be so much richer for it.

If I can thus be so bold as to offer some advice after having stumbled quite inadvertently across this little truth, it would be that you should seek such opportunities with fervour. The next time you meet a struggling non-native English speaker at a conference, workshop or other scientific meeting place, maybe think about getting involved officially. Both of you will thankful for it in the end, and your peers will rejoice in their ability to access your results.

CJA Bradshaw

1And of course, you should be following our suggested plan on how to write a scientific paper.



6 responses

23 02 2017
Multiculturalism in the lab | ConservationBytes.com

[…] writing capacity of even native English speakers is on the wane, so in my experience there has been no more effort to get a non-native speaker’s English prose up to scratch relative to the nativ…. In fact, some of my best writers have hailed from countries where English is not the native […]


24 02 2016

Is there a way to ‘gamify’ or crowd-source this? I know Duo Lingo funds itself by getting it’s users to translate short passages – could something similar be done with science papers? And the success of Zooniverse shows that there are many people out there willing to donate some of their time to science.


28 03 2015
Salvador Herrando-Pérez

Doubtless that the publication standard is unfair in research – it is not only: publish or perish. For non-English-speaking scientists, it is: publish in English or perish. But that is the standard and if anyone wants a career in science, we must comply with it. I now recommend my students to spend at least 2 years in an Anglophone country, and to invest on two skills throughout their careers: stats and story-telling/writing – PhD students can largely benefit from writing and publishing a terminological review of the key concept of their postgraduate research. I paraphrase one of our papers on terminological standards in ecology: “…Terminological reviews resemble a detective’s task of combing the literature for the historical trail of synonymous and polysemous jargon. They are time-consuming but distil the ideas behind the concepts underlying any research hypothesis; they further constitute a powerful exercise of conceptual discernment that links modern to past theoretical frameworks and prevents redundant research…” (BioScience 64(4):311-321). Words mean concepts; concepts mean hypotheses; hypotheses mean science; hence: words mean science. Words are jewels that provide semantic value and brightness to scientific discourse – for that matter, to anything we express in our personal or professional experience.


2 02 2015

Reblogged this on Active Oceans and commented:
The following post is from Prof. Corey Bradshaw, who writes for his blog, Conservation Bytes. Corey’s experience with international collaborators, in particular in China, so mirrored mine that I thought I should share. Over the last year, I have discovered the joy of working with some of the excellent scientists in China; they truly are brilliant at what they do and I would encourage anyone to work with them. Spending time in China and writing papers with Prof. Yunwei Dong, Prof. Kunshan Gao, and their research groups has (and continues to be) an amazing experience.


30 01 2015

I’m in two minds about this. As a scientist, I think it’s great, and the collaboration can be hugely beneficial for all involved. As a former translator, I know there are excellent science translators out there, and there could be more work for them if scientific journals would a) employ part-time editors with good command of other languages to decide whether non-English language papers should go for review, and if so, b) pay to have them well translated. I say the journals should pay because I don’t think the cost of translation should fall onto non-English-speaking countries.
Translation is a skill. When it’s done well, it’s an art. There are translators who, if they’re given free rein, will produce translation that is better than the paper in its original language.
I still keep an eye on the translation industry. The problem as I see it now is that the rise of Google translate has meant that although people are very well aware that Google’s translations leave a fair bit to be desired, they think even good translation must be easy and mechanical, and should therefore be cheap.
So while I entirely endorse your call for greater cross-lingual collaboration, I also wonder why more researchers don’t consider translation.
Thinking as I write, this should perhaps apply to English writers as much as non-English writers. I wonder if the scientific world would be different if we had each of our papers translated into at least one other language? ‘Course, in your case Corey you could probably just write a French version as well as an English one (just to make all us not-quite-bilinguals even more jealous).


28 01 2015

Loved the post! I am from Brazil and of course we have some difficulties with another language. We do make good science, and sometimes we don’t publish papers in good journals due to the language barrier. We are learning now how to collaborate with other researchers from other countries. I am sure this will help us to improve the quality of our research.

Mariana S Ferreira


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