Let’s stop saying “native English speaker” in reviews

Standard

There’s a remark that I see once a while in reviews, something along the lines of: “The authors should have their work edited by a native English speaker.”

Please stop staying this. I think it’s a problem, for three reasons:

First, as a reviewer, you have absolutely no idea whether the author(s) are native English speakers. There isn’t a box that in the manuscript submission process that asks this question. You can’t infer this information from a name, or an institution, or a geographic location. This is an assumption that you don’t need to make.

Second, there are many ways to be a native English speaker. If a manuscript is written differently than you would write it, and you think there are lots of grammatical errors, this doesn’t mean the author isn’t a native English speaker. It just means their English is different than what you think is acceptable.

Third, telling authors that they can’t publish their work without going through someone of your own cultural background is a textbook example of gatekeeping. This kind of approach tells fellow scientists that they’re not welcome in our scientific community unless they have a cultural escort. You might not think that’s what “have your grammar checked by a native English speaker” means, but that’s definitely how some people see it. You don’t need to say it, so, please, just don’t.

So, then, you might be wondering, what should you say instead? If you think a manuscript needs to be fixed, say so. Just say what the problem is.

Don’t make it about the author, make it about the manuscript, in a polite and straightforward manner. For example, “There were several places where the subject-verb agreement was incorrect (e.g., lines 147 and 233), and a few sentences that I had trouble following. I think detailed copyediting would be helpful.”

I’ve got to tell you that, on multiple occasions, I’ve seen reviews saying that the authors are not native English speakers when I knew for an absolute fact that the authors were native English speakers. In one case, the author grew up only speaking English in the US, and went abroad for a postdoc, and then a reviewer didn’t like some of the grammar and just assumed the author wasn’t a native English speaker. But even if a person is not a native English speaker (perhaps you know them and discussed this previously), you still shouldn’t indicate this as a limitation in the review. Because there are a ton of people who are not native English speakers who have amazing English grammar in their scientific writing. It’s not about being a native speaker. It’s about writing a manuscript in English. Whether or not you’re a “native” doesn’t matter at all, so keep that out of it.

In your review, do you need to do careful copyediting to improve the writing? No, you clearly are not expected to do this, you’re being asked to review the science. It would be generous of you to spend your time on copyediting, but it’s okay to just write a single sentence in the review saying how the writing needs some attention.

What do you do if the manuscript is nonsensical enough that you can’t evaluate the science? You should return it to the editor with out a review, saying that you couldn’t understand it. Then the editor can ask the author to revise to make it understandable. If you genuinely can’t understand it, you shouldn’t review it. However, I think these situations are very rare. I think some people just see grammar they don’t like and then get all fed up.

The bottom line is that when we review manuscripts, we don’t need to make assumptions about the authors. We shouldn’t make assumptions about the authors. We should focus on the manuscript itself.

22 thoughts on “Let’s stop saying “native English speaker” in reviews

  1. A lot of good points, but you imply that all grammars are alike and they are not. There are a limited number of ways to write grammatically in English. If the authors do not follow them, this is worth pointing out. If a paper is quite unclear because of the language, pointing this out and giving what review you can is worth it. Another thing one should not assume is that the senior author did not help with the writing.

  2. Good point. I think we have to realize that editing is a really important part of any article, no matter who writes it. I do a lot of this work, and English grammar is not necessarily the biggest problem in papers. It’s organization and telling a story. It would be so much easier if it was just language.

  3. “different than” is apparently American English, not English English. That sort of thing I’d look up online before commenting on it in a review. On the topic it’s easy to just say the English construction needs to be improved, without the speculating on the native culture of the authors that may be incorrect.

  4. Generally I simply ask for the manuscript to get professional language editing. That solves both poor grammar and non-native usages. However, if a native English speaker has such a poor grammar that reviewers take them for foreigners, in my view it’s the author’s bad.

    • “it’s the author’s fault.” > “it’s the author’s bad.”

  5. I have sent this exact comment to an editor before and am a non-native English speaker myself. The reason I sent it was that the manuscript was in such bad English I could only get a vague idea of what the authors were trying to say and was unable to judge the science. It was so obvious that the authors were NOT native speakers (if they had been I would have serious questions about the level of education they had received). And I think it happens a bit more often than you think (Wikipedia estimates up to 360 million native English speakers vs 7.6 billion people world wide).

    Actually, in my opinion, good non-native speakers often write scientific articles more clearly than native speakers as they pay more attention to word choice whereas native speakers are prone to using too much connotation and inference which non-native readers will not be able to parse.

    • I totally agree with your last sentence. I am a native English speaker and as I have worked with non-native English speaking students and colleagues, I have learned my natural writing style is too wordy, too indirect, and too reliant on connotation and inference. I dedicate at least 10 hours to any ‘finished’ manuscript now to do nothing but think about how each sentence could be written clearer and more direct, and that editing stage impacts nearly every sentence!! Good writing is time consuming, but worth it, no matter your background.

  6. Totally agree! As editor, I recently edited a review before sending to authors to replace “revised by English native” by “revised for English”. I wrote to the reviewer to inform her/him of the change, and they were very supportive.

  7. Great points! I was just talking about this exact subject with a colleague yesterday and couldn’t agree more. I’ve received this comment myself as a native English speaker when publishing work that took place in Latin America. As you say, the comment is at best unhelpful, at worst just plain racist.

  8. Excellent points! A native speaker of any language does not become a native writer of that language by default. In fact, the concept of native writer is itself a wrong one. I think a good/clear writing of any form and style requires years of practice and it is fundamentally different to learning a language to speak.

  9. A few years ago I got the comment “There are numerous writing errors throughout and the authors should consult a native English speaker for editing”. For one thing, I am a native English speaker (with a very slavic surname), and another thing, I found only 2 errors in a very careful comb through of the manuscript. Honestly, I think it was just a reviewer being lazy and stating “I am too important to spend the extra 10 minutes to point out grammatical errors”.

  10. As a copy editor/proofreader, I agree completely with this. However, in Taiwan where I’m based, it’s also non-native English speakers who act as reviewers and they also often recommend native English speakers to proofread the manuscript – sometimes, even after proofreading, where the “mistakes” are not mistakes at all. That then isn’t about “cultural gatekeeping” but more about their own view of what is good English is and what is acceptable academic English usage, and (I suspect) about being in a position of authority over somebody else’s work. Although I’m now wondering if in the past these people have had their work reviewed and told (perhaps unfairly) to have their paper proofread by a native speaker, and they are now able to tell others the same.

  11. Let’s not. It is a minor assumption to be made for the sake of briefness and getting the point across that only snowflakes will find offensive, in which case, who gives a shit?
    The author says we should not make assumptions, but then goes on to say: “Third, telling authors that they can’t publish their work without going through someone of your own cultural background is a textbook example of gatekeeping.”
    Why does he assume that telling someone that his writing is shit is the same as telling him that his scientific result are not worthy of getting published? i am offended by that. It is a suggestion for better presentation of the results, which will benefit the author.

  12. …Don’t make it about the author, make it about the manuscript, in a polite and straightforward manner. For example, “There were several places where the subject-verb agreement was incorrect (e.g., lines 147 and 233)”…

    If I knew grammar I wouldn’t make the errors in the first place, why does the author of this article thinks it is a good idea to be condescending?

    • It’s quite likely that you commit errors by mistake (pun not fully intended, just a reflection of how obvious this looks to m).

      • I don’t care to be honest, I was trying to make the point that anyone can be offended by anything. Some people could suggest that the use of the word “speaker” as in “Second, there are many ways to be a native English speaker” could be offensive to mute people. In your case you make the assumption that I made a mistake, and I could be offended for being told that I am careless if I genuinely didn’t know i made a mistake. I don’t see a problem with “native English speaker”, if a manuscript is scientifically crap then I will not even raise the language point (if it exists), but if the manuscript is scientifically wonderful then I will try my best for it to be perfect overall and make suggestions like that (because I am not a native English speaker myself). In fact, I have yet to meet a person in Computer Science who will not accept a manuscript based solely on language.

        • ” I don’t see a problem with “native English speaker”,” — except part of the point of this entry was that you might be wrong and the article is written by a native english speaker. Why make a possibly incorrect assumption? (I doubt anyone has done this, but if a native english speaker received this comment, they could conceivably just reply “The manuscript has been checked by a native English speaker–me–and I’m just fine with it” and in principle they could be considered to have reasonably responded to the reviewer’s request.)

          You slippery slope argument about “anyone could be offended by anything” is not sound, either. Just because it you can’t avoid offending anyone doesn’t mean the whole attempt to not be offensive is worthless, and it ignores that some things are more offensive than others. Just because it doesn’t offend you doesn’t mean it’s an invalid line to draw in offensiveness. (Yes, someone could take offense that you write “There are numerous places where the grammar is incorrect.” That DOES not mean that it is equally likely to be offensive, or no more acceptable, than writing “There are some ridiculously stupid grammatical errors that the authors should fix if they don’t want to look like idiots.”

          Long and short, one need not choose between trying to offend no one, and not caring if you offend anyone.

  13. If the article was indeed written by a native English speaker and i was wrong about my assumption, then cool, I am perfectly fine if the author double-checked it and is also fine with his writing, as I think anyone other than a psychopath or a grammar nazi would be.

    “Why make a possibly incorrect assumption?” Because that is life, it is based on everyday small or big assumptions. You see a cute girl eyeing you and smiling at you, you assume she is interested and go to chat her up. It turns out that a bird took a crap on your head that you didn’t even realize, and that this was the reason you caught her attention. Nobody got hurt, perhaps your ego, a little, which is still healthy.

    I never said that the whole attempt to not be offensive is worthless, that is your interpretation and, frankly, i am offended by it. “anyone could be offended by anything” stands alone as it is, there is nothing more to it, you can say “hello” to someone and that may offend him because of a trauma or a bad experience that will get triggered. I can see “native English speaker” being offensive only to snowflakes, and that is not a good enough reason to mark it as offensive in my book. I’ve been assumed to be Austrian, Italian, Spanish, whatever, I don’t care, I like all those people, I’ve been even assumed to be a woman once because I have long hair and slightly feminine features, I responded “sorry dude” with my manly voice, we both had a laugh. Some people need to take a chill pill.

You can leave a comment anonymously, just don't give your name or email.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s