Daniel:

In my opinion, too much emphasis is placed on the importance of language by authors and editors, relative to the merit of the research. Language is important, but it’s only one of the components and is certainly less important to journals and journal publishers. The reason for this is that journals and journal publishers are more concerned with quality research and journal-fit.

Mark:

I agree with Daniel. I believe that “native English” is not necessarily the best English and that perhaps a kind of international auxiliary language would be more suitable for global publishing. This idea isn’t mine and it isn’t new: the constructed language Esperanto was the first attempt and Charles Kay’s idea of a ‘Basic English’ with limited vocabulary and verb structures survives today in the Simple English Wikipedia and the Special English used by the Voice of America broadcasting service.

What is taught as academic English is an ex post facto construction: basically, academic English’s rules are the rules of the English language itself, with conventions and styles that arose naturally in history and are now codified in style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style. These rules and conventions are not exclusively accessible to people who speak English as a native language (you can read the Chicago Manual of Style too), but certainly they are more easily accessible.

This strikes me as unfair: why should a scientist born in the US automatically have a privileged position compared with a scientist born in China, just because of their birthplace? In the same field, the US student and the Chinese student have to learn the same topics, take the same courses, invest the same long hours in the laboratory, write the same course papers, except, the Chinese student also has to spend their time learning English! Especially given how linguistically different English is from Chinese, compared with Germanic or Romance languages, this seems to me to be an unfair tax on the Chinese student’s time.

However, I don’t have a good solution for enforcement. Limiting the terms and structures of the language would be especially prohibitive in academia, where new terms, ideas, and thoughts are born with nearly every single paper. On the ‘authority’ side, any time you have an official language, it is usually accompanied by an official enforcement body: who would control the standards of academic English? Finally, whenever someone creates a new universal standard, with the intention to unify different conflicting local standards, what happens in reality is that the local standards continue to exist and now there’s just one more standard to worry about.

Sally:

Interesting points, Mark. I am not sure to what extent this is a controversial view, but I believe that open-access publishing is the way to go. Firstly, most data are produced using some kind of public funding, so if the public have contributed to the data, should they not also have access to the research findings? Secondly, I think the exclusion of “lay people” (and even researchers who aren’t attached to an institution with subscriptions to journals) from being able to access primary scientific knowledge is an important problem in our current society.

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