As we discuss frequently here on the AJE Author Resource Center, academic English is different from everyday English. Many of the conventions of scholarly writing seem overly formal or distant when used in day-to-day speech. And while the seemingly endless vocabulary in the English language allows writers a great deal of freedom, it is always important to consider the audience.
Today, at least 50% of researchers are found in countries outside the US and Europe. These researchers rely on the written record of scientific communication to advance their own research, and this record is overwhelmingly written in English. To ensure that research papers are understood by the widest possible audience, it is necessary to write in a way that speakers of English as a second language find accessible.
So how can we write with an international audience in mind?
Keep sentences short
There are several ways to make English text accessible to second language readers, largely through the use of simple grammatical constructs. First, don’t use lengthy sentences. Going beyond 20 words is likely to confuse a reader who is not fluent in English, and a limit of 16 words may be even better. Rearranging or splitting sentences can help meet this goal.
Avoid grammatical structures that are uncommon in other languages
Some grammatical forms are less common (or absent) from languages other than English. Two examples include double negatives and false subjects. Double negation can actually convey the opposite meaning to speakers fluent in foreign languages such as Spanish, in which a second negative serves as an intensifier. Thus, the phrase “not uncommon” could be interpreted mistakenly as “very rare.”
Sentences that start with so-called false subjects (“It is…” or “There are…”) can also confuse second-language English speakers. In such cases, the reader may struggle to define the antecedent for the initial pronoun, when in reality, no specific antecedent exists.
Phrasal verbs, verbs formed out of multiple words, are also a potential pitfall. Substituting a single word (e.g., reduce for cut back on or tolerate for put up with) will reduce confusion. English has an abundance of prepositions, and their use in other grammatical capacities only makes them seem more challenging.
Avoid extraneous words
Similarly, long stretches of short words can be difficult to understand, as each word is often interpreted or translated individually by someone who is not fluent in English. Phrases such as in order to or for the purpose of should be simplified (often to or for work fine). The passive voice, while grammatically correct and appropriate for formal writing, likewise leads to a greater number of words where fewer may suffice.
The table below includes additional examples of phrases and sentences with extraneous words.
|Original phrase or sentence||Simplified alternative|
|As a consequence of||Because of|
|With regard to||Concerning|
|Along the lines of||‘Like’ or ‘Such as’|
|At the same time||Simultaneously|
|Authors must ensure that appropriate permission has nevertheless been obtained.||Nevertheless, authors must obtain appropriate permission.|
|For those investigators who do not have formal ethics review committees, the principles outlined in the Declaration of Helsinki should be followed.||Investigators without formal ethics review committees should follow the principles outlined in the Declaration of Helsinki.|
|Manuscripts submitted are expected not only to be of significance within their field, but also of interest to researchers outside the field.||Submitted manuscripts must contribute significantly to their field and also interest researchers outside the field.|
Reasons to write for an international audience
The language barrier can also make reviewer comments seem harsher than they were intended to be. When reviewers write in clear English (using the suggestions listed above), it improves the exchange with international authors. Reducing author issues with the comments based strictly on language will, in turn, allow the authors to more carefully reflect on the suggestions and concerns about their research.
Publishing research in one’s native language is difficult enough, but second language authors face additional challenges. Whether you are a journal creating author guidelines, a reviewer providing feedback, or an author describing your own results, writing for an international audience helps the entire research community advance discovery more rapidly and efficiently.
This material is adapted from a peer-reviewed article I wrote for Learned Publishing (“Understanding the needs of international authors” Learned Publishing 26(2):139-147). The full text can be accessed here.