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Editing Non-Native English: State of the Sciences

Editing scientific papers from countries where English is not the first language can cause confusion for authors, editors, and publishers. Here I delve into some of the issues that I have encountered while editing such papers.

English is the universal language of science and technology. Every day headlines announce the news of decoding the dark matter of our cells or the universe. These announcements are quickly picked up by different outlets and spread across the Internet. At the end of the day, experts digest and interpret the findings, vying for the attention of busy consumers. If the summaries do not grab one’s attention, it is likely to fade into the mold-encrusted recesses of academia, with barely a mention at an international conference.

Researchers who speak English as a second, third, or umpteenth language are an integral part of global innovation. They bring unique perspectives that enrich the literature and sciences. For instance, Joseph Conrad, was Polish and only learned to speak English as an adult. The lead character, Charles Morrow, from Conrad’s seminal book, Heart of Darkness, is still firmly lodged in my mind. Renowned British biochemist, Joseph Needham, drove home the importance of pioneering discoveries in the non-English speaking world to this humble writer. Harvard University Press still lists his book, Science in Traditional China, in which he describes the invention of gun powder and firearms, among other discoveries, by the Chinese scientists.

Alas! Today’s editors lack the time and passion to simultaneously edit, interpret, and place every manuscript within the appropriate context, as intended by each corresponding author. This is especially true, in the case of the ever-growing number of papers coming from countries where English is not the first language. Researchers from those countries face the same career challenges as their English-speaking peers i.e., the need to publish in high impact factor journals to advance their careers. Editors of those journals face the added pressure of not “tossing out the baby with the bath water,” by inadvertently rejecting a paper with a hidden scientific breakthrough wrapped in poor English.

Hence, the proliferation of online “language-polishing and proofreading services.” Depending on its reputation, each platform offers an array of services designed to make the paper more readable and less likely to be rejected immediately by a journal editor based on language quality.

I have listed some of the typical mistakes found in these papers:

1. Misplaced or missing punctuation marks (notice the difference between "let's eat grandpa" and "let's eat, grandpa")

2. Incorrectly cited references or references that do not support the statement being made by the author

3. Mixed tenses in the same sentence e.g., Fig. 3a shows an absorption peak at 200 nm and Fig. 3b showed an absorption peak at 220 nm.

Since results are summarized in the discussion, it is fine to use the past tense in that section. When interpreting results, it is fine to use the present tense. The point is to be consistent, especially within one sentence.

4. Run on sentences e.g., In a line that VEGF inhibits DC differentiation into mature DC cells and promotes the accumulation of MDSCs, Tregs, and tumor-associated macrophage cells and RUNX3 can directly inhibit VEGF secretion through transcriptional repression.

No app will solve a non-expert's confusion. It requires researching the original references on which the statements are based and finesse on the part of the editor. For example, ask the author what he or she thinks of these shorter, more explanatory sentences. The point is to show the authors that you respect their efforts and are trying to work with them to resolve confusion. They may then modify your initial efforts to accurately convey their true intentions:

Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) reduces a productive host immune response by inhibiting dendritic cell (DC) differentiation into mature DCs. VEGF also promotes the accumulation of myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs), regulatory T cells (Tregs), and tumor-associated macrophages. Runt‑related transcription factor 3 (RUNX3) restoration can inhibit tumor growth and angiogenesis, as determined by evaluating VEGF expression and tumor microvessel formation.

5. File conversion issues e.g., converting from pdf to word documents. If the author wants to change large parts of the text in a galley proof for any reason, he or she may export the pdf into a word document and want an editor to check the work. If the document is filled with mathematical equations, they appear garbled in the word document, causing headaches to the editor. There is one known workaround i.e., Go into Adobe Acrobat Pro DC and click Edit > Take a snapshot. Right-click Copy Selected Graphic. Then open the exported word document in a new window. Delete the garbled equation and replace it with the image of the equation by clicking “Paste.”This is a cumbersome exercise. As of the publication of this post, Adobe has not developed another workaround, but I will keep readers posted.

Alternatively, it makes more sense to add edits to the word document originally approved by the journal.

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