Robert Neubecker

Reviewers, don’t be rude to nonnative English speakers

“This paper requires significant editing, as it is not written in sound English and cannot be accepted in its current form.” “This sentence does not make any sense.” “The authors need a native English-speaking co-author to thoroughly revise the grammar of this manuscript.” My heart sank when I received this feedback from a reviewer for the first paper I had ever submitted as a first author. The reviewer didn’t say a thing about the underlying science—but isn’t that what peer review is supposed to evaluate? Regardless, the reviewer recommended that our manuscript be rejected. This happened about 10 years ago. But as a nonnative English speaker who needs to publish in English, I still think about the experience today.

I expected my paper to fare well. I knew the science was strong. I had the resources and backup data to make whatever scientific changes the reviewers suggested. I also knew that my English skills weren’t great. But I had a native English-speaking co-author and an adviser who was proficient in English, and they both thoroughly revised the manuscript.

When I received those comments from the reviewer, I was crushed. I felt our work wasn’t being judged fairly. Had the reviewer assumed that, because my co-authors and I were all affiliated with the same Mexican research institute, none of us was proficient in English? My co-author told me I shouldn’t take the comments personally, and that they did not reflect on the quality of my work, but that didn’t make me feel any better. How could I succeed in academia if I could not manage to publish a paper in English?

Luckily, the other two reviewers made useful suggestions about the science, and the editor invited us to submit a revised version. I modified the science based on the helpful reviewers’ feedback and made the grammar and style corrections demanded by the rude reviewer, and my first first-author paper was accepted.

Since then, no reviewers have had a problem with my English—maybe because I moved to the United States and started publishing with co-authors who have American-sounding names. I also put a lot of work into improving my language skills, including participating in writing workshops and reading books about writing in English.

But many of my colleagues in Mexico tell me stories of dealing with reviewers who are harsh and patronizing about their English. And I know that other researchers around the world experience similar insults.

Reviewers, you don’t need to be rude. Here are three principles for providing constructive reviews, even when you think an article is poorly written.

You are not a martyr or the savior of people who did not grow up speaking English.

First and foremost, do not make assumptions about the quality of a paper based on the authors’ names and affiliations. This form of bias is rooted in racism.

Second, you are a reviewer—not an editor. Focus on the research. If the English is so poor you cannot review the paper or provide feedback on the science, tell the editor so that they can decide how to proceed.

Third, if the paper is not written in sound English, it is OK to correct grammatical errors and help improve the writing. But remember that you are not a martyr or the savior of people who did not grow up speaking English. Be kind. For example, you can write, “I cannot understand what the authors are trying to communicate here.” You can also suggest editing help from someone with “full professional proficiency in English.” Don’t demand “a native English speaker”; that is not synonymous with being a good writer.

As reviewers, we help ensure that high-quality science gets published. We can—and should—do this without forgetting that behind every paper are people who worked hard to put together a manuscript reporting their cherished research. As scientists, we know that writing is hard. Keep in mind that writing in a second language is even harder.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org. Read the general guidelines here.

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