Science - October 28, 2004

Debate/ Journals discriminate

Science and Nature do not accept bad sentence structure or spelling mistakes. Logical you might think for prestigious scientific journals that have a name to uphold. But some people think the reactions go too far, including geologist Dr Alfred Hartemink, who suggested last week during a workshop in Wageningen that non-native speakers of English are discriminated against when submitting articles for publication. If you come from Europe or Asia you can forget it, even if you have a good story. What do other scientists think?

Dr John van der Oost, assistant professor at the Laboratory for Microbiology:
‘We Dutch do not write as beautiful English as the Americans, that’s for sure, but my research group does not receive a lot of criticism of our English as long as our scientific content is alright. That’s the case at least for the Dutch among us. For the Asians it’s a different story: some already have difficulties speaking English, and when it comes to writing they have an even worse time of it. I think it’s a good idea for these people to do a writing course, and in our group that is what they do.’

Professor Willem Frijhoff, chair of history at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who led a Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences review of the use of Dutch and English at Dutch universities in 2003:
‘Articles rejected because of the bad English? We would do well to realise that practices labelled as being to do with upholding language standards often mask very different strategies. The publications world is a big bad world in which giant publishers, universities and financiers are looking for arguments to prove themselves in the face of fierce competition. Let’s be clear, the English that is used in the technical and scientific world is a sort of general lingua franca where issues like style or awkwardness are of little relevance.’

Françoise Kaminker, editorial assistant of a scientific journal, and native speaker:
‘I do English correction for Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata. I understand it doesn’t seem fair to not give much of a chance to scientists having trouble with the English language. The nationalities that seem to have the most trouble with the language are the ones whose own languages have a totally different grammatical structure, such as Japanese, Chinese or Arabic. Papers we receive are evaluated by several people (editors and reviewers), the majority of whom are highly qualified, very busy scientists whose time is at a premium, and we try to make sure that manuscripts they are asked to look at are reasonable. If a manuscript’s presentation is so poor that we cannot even understand the science, then it is rejected. I advise researchers to at least do a computer spell-check – I am still surprised at how many manuscripts are sent in with typing and spelling errors. When submitting a paper, try to find someone whose English is good, to read and correct your paper. We do not reject a manuscript on the basis of political factors. I don’t know if journals in the US do that, although it would not surprise me.’

Hugo Bouter