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Language-related challenges encountered by peer reviewers and a possible solution: commercial language editing services

Peer review can be challenging for a variety of reasons, including if a reviewer is unable to fully understand the language in a manuscript. In this article, we discuss the potential solution provided by language editing services.

Summary

Commercial language editing services help scientists who are not native speakers of English to communicate their work as clearly as possible. Although such services simplify the process of scientific publishing for both authors and peer reviewers, many peer reviewers are unaware that commercial language editing services exist. This lack of awareness leads to the unnecessary rejection of many papers with good content and cases in which peer reviewers attempt to provide language editing in the context of their reviews. The consequences of this inefficiency likely fall most heavily on early-career researchers, who either encounter delays in publishing their work or spend too much of their valuable research time on peer reviewing. In this article, we provide a “road map” that reviewers can follow to suggest that authors use commercial language editing services when they are needed. Use of this road map will increase the efficiency of scientific publishing through reducing the time that reviewers spend on peer reviews and helping authors find the language editing services that they need to communicate their science clearly.

English as the language of modern science

Although modern science takes place in a collaborative environment that brings together researchers from all over the world, most scientific research is published in English. The dominance of English in scientific publishing is fairly recent; before the First World War, the scientific literature was a mix of German, French, and English [1]. English has continued to dominate as the language of science, even though China now publishes more scientific articles annually than the United States [2].

peer reviewer reading a manuscript

Because the level of English expertise varies among researchers, scientists who review papers for journals sometimes face special challenges. The manuscripts that are submitted to journals are sometimes written such that the language interferes with the reader’s understanding of the material.

Peer reviewers are faced with several poor options when they receive a manuscript with language issues.

  1. Reject the paper until it has been edited by a native English speaker.
  2. Attempt to provide a review based solely on the content of the paper, even though that content may not be clear.
  3. Edit part or all of the paper while also providing feedback on the content of the paper.

In our experience, scientists often choose option #3. Many peer reviewers are conscientious people who believe passionately in the cooperative, international nature of science. To these reviewers, who want to help their colleagues achieve their publishing goals, options #1 and #2 seem inadequate.

Thus, peer reviewers spend considerable amounts of valuable research time on providing language editing – for free. This practice has important negative effects. By our estimate, peer review already consumes about 15 million extra hours of scientists’ time each year [3]. When peer reviewers attempt to perform language editing in the context of a review, it adds to that amount of lost time.

Early-career scientists may be especially likely to edit the manuscripts they receive for peer review, sometimes spending days on editing individual manuscripts. However, early-career scientists are highly dependent on their own publishing records to stay in science and advance their careers. Thus, the choice to spend extra time on editing manuscripts that they receive for peer review arguably penalizes early-career researchers most strongly.

The possible solution represented by commercial language editing services

Commercial language editing services do exist, and they represent a possible solution to some of the problems listed above. Reputable services typically employ only native English speakers, who often have advanced degrees earned in English-speaking countries. These editors use their high-level understanding of both the English language and the subject matter to bring manuscripts up to an acceptable level of quality. These edited manuscripts can then be judged on the merits of their scientific content, consistent with the purpose of peer review.

However, reputable language editing services do not promise that the manuscripts that they edit will be accepted for publication. Such unrealistic guarantees are a sure sign of predatory commercial language editing services, which take advantage of researchers. This issue parallels the problem of predatory open-access journals in scientific publishing [4].

A road map to recommending the use of commercial language editing services in peer reviews

What can you do if you receive a manuscript for peer review that needs language editing? The steps below can be used in writing constructive reviews for these challenging manuscripts.

1. If you feel that the content of the manuscript is valuable, say so.

Point out that the work will have a greater impact if the language is polished before the paper is published.

2. Suggest that the authors have their manuscript edited by a commercial language editing service.

The journal may have a service that it prefers to use; check the journal’s or publisher’s website for this information. If not, suggest that the authors search for a reputable language editing service using terms such as “scientific English language editing.” Also, suggest that the authors check into any service that they are thinking of using to ensure that it provides high-quality editing. The authors’ colleagues or online reviews may provide insight into the level of quality provided by individual companies.

3. Indicate that you are willing to re-review the manuscript after it has been properly edited, if that is true.

4. Suggest that the authors use a language editing service before submitting their next manuscript.

This step will likely reduce the time between when the authors submit their next manuscript and when it is published.

Conclusion

The international nature of science and the dominance of English in the scientific literature sometimes creates problems for peer reviewers and authors [5]. However, commercial language editing services can help in meeting some of these challenges. Constructive use of these services may increase the efficiency of scientific publishing and improve the clarity of the scientific literature.

Thanks to Luciana Leopold, Ben Mudrak, and Theresa Somerville for contributing to this article. We also thank our colleagues in academia who shared their experiences for this article.

This article is part of our ongoing series on peer review. See our full list here.

References

[1] Porzucki, Nina, 6 Oct 2014. How did English become the language of science? Public Radio International. https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-10-06/how-did-english-become-language-science

[2] 23 January 2018. Policy and ethics: China declared world’s largest producer of scientific articles. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/china-declared-world-rsquo-s-largest-producer-of-scientific-articles/

[3] Peer review: how we found 15 million hours of lost time. Author Resource Center, AJE. http://www.aje.com/en/arc/peer-review-process-15-million-hours-lost-time/

[4] Beall, Jeffrey, 13 Sept 2012. Predatory publishers are corrupting open access. Nature, v. 489, p. 179. https://www.nature.com/news/predatory-publishers-are-corrupting-open-access-1.11385

[5] How language affects research [plus a survey]. Author Resource Center, AJE. https://www.aje.com/en/arc/how-language-affects-research/

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