As NSE academics who have submitted many papers for review, these PRs understand the peer review process from the perspective of an author. After submitting a paper, Judith is always anxious, but hopes that after the first review, the door will be open towards publication. In other words, there is never any expectation it will be accepted, but rather a level of hope that the PRs will see enough in the paper to open a conversation, so that the paper can be improved over the, sometimes lengthy, review process towards acceptance.
Geraldine and Stephen both reported feeling excited but nervous after submitting a paper, although Stephen explains that he generally feels “pretty great” initially, because “it’s something I’ve put a decent amount of time into.”
When asked what advice the PRs would offer NNSEs regarding their academic writing, they responded with the following items:
- Work with co-authors in the field who are native English speakers to revise the paper (Judith)
- Have a native English speaker proofread or edit your paper—preferably someone who is also familiar with the subject area (Stephen)
- Use a professional editing service to make sure the finer grammatical issues have not been overlooked (Stephen)
- Use what help you can get, learn as much as you can from that help, and don’t feel ashamed of doing so. Doing academic research and getting published is hard enough without having to deal with a language of which you are not a native speaker. (Geraldine)
- Factor in more time for the project lifecycle to allow for English language editing (Sara)
For all authors, Judith stated that, while it is always upsetting to be rejected or to be asked to make major revisions—and sometimes authors feel that PRs have missed the point or got it wrong—the key is to not take things personally. Thus, if given the opportunity, it is essential to revise and re-submit, to explain clearly how you have made the recommended changes and, if appropriate, why you haven’t.
Stephen takes a strategic view of the entire review process. As the process from submission to publication varies from journal to journal, it is advisable to send a few papers to lower-tier journals that are likely to go through quicker and a few to higher-tier journals that will probably take longer. That way, your productivity is less affected if you fail to succeed with some of the more ambitious journals.
Why do some peer reviewers use poor English in their comments to authors?
When reading over the comments you receive from PRs, it is possible that you have noticed that some PRs use poor English in the reviews, which isn’t necessarily related to the native tongue of the PR. I therefore asked the interviewees for their thoughts about why some PRs fail to ensure their English is error free.
Judith stated that as a journal editor, she has been aware of poorly written English in a few reviews. However, if the review is good overall, she usually edits the errors before forwarding it to the author.
Possible reasons for such errors are that PRs—as unpaid volunteers—take on too much and rush their responses to get the reviews done; sometimes academics are frustrated with the poor quality of the paper, in terms of the language or content; and younger academics, in particular, sometimes don’t like to say no when asked to review by senior academics they want to impress, though of course that can backfire if a review is poor.
Geraldine stated the following: “I think this is poor practice. We can all make mistakes from time to time, but reviews should also be well written and easy to understand. I couldn’t say why people don’t take the time to fix it, as I always try to write a comprehensible (and comprehensive!) review.”
Stephen agreed that while seeing errors in the PRs’ reviews is suboptimal, “the value PRs bring should be judged by the quality of their feedback, as opposed to the level of care taken in their writing. Ideally, both would be addressed.”
Sara raised the point that sometimes academics are NNSEs themselves, which raises the question about whether NNSEs should conduct peer reviews in a foreign language.
Should NNSEs comment on the English in their peer reviews?
Overall, the PRs considered that NNSEs who have experience of publishing in an English journal of high quality—a requirement to be recruited as a PR—are capable of conducting PRs in English because the quality of a peer review depends on the academic him- or herself and not whether they are good at languages (Judith). Whether they are NSEs or NNSEs, PRs are only required to comment on the standard of writing in an article if it is problematic. Those problems might be grammatical issues, for which they only need recommend using a professional English editing service, but they might also relate to the style of writing, which could mean that the author is using technical language that is incomprehensible to anyone other than the most specialized researchers. For grammatical errors, a NNSE could perhaps declare that they are not a native speaker of English by saying something similar to the following: “This appears to be a grammatical error – please check.”
Geraldine stated, “I don’t think that journal editors do or should differentiate between NNSEs and NSEs” because of the variety of people’s names. It is almost impossible to know whether potential PRs are native English speakers or not, unless you are close personal friends with them. Using herself as an example, Geraldine explained, “I have a continental European name, but I am a native New-Zealand English speaker living in the UK.”
As an Editor for Uni-edit, I have read many peer review reports in which PRs are requested to comment on the quality of writing. However, there are two aspects to the quality of writing: the composition of the paper and the quality of English. These can differ. For example, a paper might be superbly assembled with facts, references, logical argument, insight, and conclusions but could have numerous grammatical problems. By contrast, a paper could be written in superb English but just not put forward a meaningful argument. PRs sometimes comment on the composition and sometimes on the English usage. If a PR is a NNSE, commenting on the English might be challenging, and further, the author will be likewise challenged to put such comments into perspective.