How to Write Science in English as a Foreign Language in publications

1. ENGLISH AS THE INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE

English is currently the international language of science. By no means does this demand that every scientific paper be written in English. Papers on findings mainly of local, national, or regional interest (for instance, in agricultural sci­ence, social science, or medicine) generally are best published in the language of those likely to use the content. However, when findings should be accessi­ble to fellow scientists throughout the world, papers generally should appear in English.

For huge numbers of scientists, both in predominantly English-speaking countries and elsewhere, English is a second (or third, fourth, or fifth) language. In addition to facing the usual challenges of writing and publishing a scientific paper, these scientists face the challenges of writing in a foreign language and, oftentimes, interacting with editors from another culture. Yet many scientists from around the world have successfully met these challenges. This chapter, which is primarily for readers who are non-native speakers of English, is intended to aid in doing so. The chapter also may be useful to native-English- speaking scientists who want to work as effectively as possible with colleagues or students for whom English is not a native language.

2. THE ESSENTIALS: CONTENT, ORGANIZATION, AND CLARITY

Editors of good English-language journals want to publish the best science in the world, and many are eager to include work from a wide range of countries. Therefore, they often are willing to devote extra effort to publishing papers by non-native speakers of English (Iverson 2002). For example, they sometimes supplement peer reviewers’ comments with detailed guidance of their own, and they sometimes allot extra staff time to copyediting papers that have good content but problems in English-language expression.

Thus, for non-native as well as native-English-speaking scientists, the editor and the author are allies. Do not be intimidated if you are a non-native speaker of English. If your research is of high quality and wide interest, editors of good English-language journals will want to publish it. Of course, you will have to do your part.

Your part consists mainly of submitting an informative, well-organized, clearly written paper. Some non-native speakers worry that their English seems unpolished or clumsy. In fact, some focus so much on making the English beautiful that they neglect more basic aspects. Although good English is cer­tainly desirable, you need not agonize over fine points of style. If your paper is informative, well organized, and clear, the editor and peer reviewers can soundly evaluate your research. And then if your paper is accepted, a copy editor at the journal can readily correct occasional problems with grammar or other aspects of expression.

However, if important information is missing, if a paper is poorly organized, or if wording is unclear, the editor and peer reviewers might not be able to understand the paper well enough to evaluate the research. Even if they wish to publish the research, much difficult work may be needed to make the paper publishable. If the journal lacks the resources for this extra work, it might not be able to publish the paper. Even if it has such resources, such major difficul­ties may delay the paper’s publication.

A copy editor at the journal may query you (ask you questions) if items in your paper are unclear or if he or she is uncertain whether proposed changes would retain your intended meaning. In the past, when queries and answers to them were routinely conveyed by postal service, the query process could sub­stantially delay publication of papers by international authors. Now that email is widely available, scientists almost everywhere can receive and answer que­ries quickly. If your paper has been accepted for publication, check regularly for email messages, and reply promptly. If you do not understand a query, ask for clarification. Also, do not assume that the copy editor is right because he or she is an expert in English. He or she might have misunderstood you, and you are responsible for ensuring that your published paper is accurate.

3. CULTURAL DIFFERENCES TO CONSIDER

Cultures differ in a variety of norms relating to communication. Awareness of such differences can aid in writing and publishing your paper.

When manuscripts arrive from non-native speakers of English, issues some­times arise about the level of detail included. For example, in manuscripts by authors from some countries, the materials and methods section tends not to be as informative as the journal requires. Cultures differ in how much infor­mation people supply, both in everyday conversation and in professional communications. Notice the level of detail, and types of details, in papers pub­lished in the journal to which you will submit your paper. Then write your paper accordingly.

Directness of expression also differs among cultures. In some cultures, expression tends to be indirect; the speaker or writer circles around the main point before eventually stating it—or maybe just implies the main point. In many Western cultures, however, and in leading international journals, expres­sion tends to be direct, with the writer stating the main point and then providing details. In a typical paragraph in such a journal, a sentence at the beginning, known as the topic sentence, states the main point, and the other sentences in the paragraph then support that point or present related information. Before writing a paper for an English-language international journal, see how para­graphs in the journal tend to be structured. Then try to use that structure.

Cultures also differ in attitudes toward time. Some cultures greatly value speed and promptness, whereas others favor an unhurried pace. Prominent international journals typically embody the former attitudes. Therefore, reply quickly to inquiries from the journal, and take care to meet the deadlines that the journal sets—for example, for revising a manuscript. If you cannot meet a deadline, inform the editor as soon as possible, so he or she can plan accordingly.

Of concern to many editors is the fact that cultures also differ in attitudes toward using material taken word-for-word from other people’s writing. In English-language scientific papers for international journals, authors are required to use their own wording for the vast majority of what they say and to clearly designate any wording taken from elsewhere. Thus, although authors may look at published papers to find words or phrases to use, they are not allowed to include entire passages from published work unless the passages are put in quotation marks (or, if long, indented) and the sources are cited. Otherwise, the author is considered guilty of plagiarism. A tutorial helpful in learning to recognize and avoid plagiarism appears at www.indiana.edu/~istd.

As noted in Chapter 5, steps for avoiding inadvertent plagiarism include clearly indicating in your notes the source of any material from others’ work that you copy or download. If you inadvertently include in your paper a sentence or paragraph from elsewhere, a reviewer or copy editor might notice the differ­ence in style and, to your embarrassment, ask whether the wording is your own. Woe to you if the passage happens to be by one of the peer reviewers!

4. SOME COMMON LANGUAGE CHALLENGES

In writing scientific papers, non-native speakers ofEnglish often face challenges relating to particular aspects of the English language—especially verb tenses, prepositions, and articles. With care, authors can minimize errors in these regards. Then, if the manuscript is clearly written, a copy editor at the journal can correct remaining errors.

Verb tenses, which differ among languages, often pose difficulty. As dis­cussed in Chapter 30, the methods and results sections of a scientific paper should normally be written entirely, or almost entirely, in past tense. The intro­duction and discussion typically include a variety of tenses, depending on whether, for example, previously established knowledge is being presented (present tense) or the research reported in the present paper is being summa­rized (past tense). As well as following the general advice in this book, look at the use of verb tenses in the journal to which you are submitting your manuscript.

Deciding which preposition to use can be difficult, even sometimes for native speakers of English. Keeping a list of prepositional phrases commonly used in your field can help. So can consulting textbooks and websites intended to guide non-native speakers of English.

Likewise, proper use of articles (“a,” “an,” and “the”) can be very difficult, especially for writers whose native languages do not contain articles. Here, too, it can help to consult textbooks and websites for users ofEnglish as a foreign language and to use published papers as examples. Other sources of guidance on various aspects of English include the book Scientific English (Day and Saka- duski 2011).

Other often-challenging aspects of English include plurals, mass nouns, capitalization, and sentence length and structure. Some authors from native languages without plural forms tend to forget to add an “s” to make English nouns plural. And some non-native speakers tend mistakenly to add an “s” to mass nouns (such as “information” and “research”). Native users oflanguages that do not have capital letters, or that follow different capitalization rules from those for English, sometimes neglect to capitalize English words when needed or capitalize excessively. Authors whose native languages tend to have very long sentences sometimes write sentences that should be several sentences in English. And sometimes non-native speakers use English words but retain the sentence structure of their native language, with awkward results. (A peer reviewer told an international colleague of ours that her sentences resembled those of the character Yoda!) If any of these aspects of English tend to pose difficulty for you, perhaps pay special attention to them when you revise your writing.

Native writers of some languages tend to have difficulty with spacing in English-language text. For example, sometimes they neglect to skip a space after the period at the end of a sentence, or they insert a space between an opening parenthesis and the word that follows, or they make many spacing errors in bibliographic references. If you tend to have this difficulty, check your manu­script carefully for proper spacing.

5. MORE STRATEGIES FOR ENGLISH-LANGUAGE WRITING

While teaching scientific writing overseas, an American instructor noticed that papers by one scientist in the class seemed almost as if they had been written by a native speaker of English. When the instructor commented on this fact, the scientist described his strategy: He carefully read several papers on his research topic in leading English-language journals and then, for each section (introduction, methods, etc.), listed words and phrases commonly used; when writing his papers, he consulted these lists. This strategy also can aid other non-native speakers of English. Likewise, keeping and consulting a list of revi­sions that copy editors or others have made in one’s writing can help in polish­ing one’s English.

Write simply overall. Do not try to impress readers with vocabulary words you have learned for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Do not try to display your ability to write long, complex sentences in English. Do not try to exhibit your mastery of passive voice. Remember, the goal of a scientific paper is to communicate the science, not to impress readers with your English level. Many readers of your paper may be non-native speakers who know much less English than you do. Also, relatively simple writing makes a paper easier to understand even for native speakers of English, including editors and peer reviewers.

Draft your paper in English, if possible, rather than writing it in your native language and then translating it. Doing so can help your paper to read well in English. When you are drafting your paper, do not try to make the English perfect, as doing so can disrupt your flow of ideas. Rather, just try to express what you want to say. Then, once you have a draft, go back and, where neces­sary, improve the English.

If feasible, have someone with an especially strong command of English (and, ideally, knowledge of scientific writing and editing) review your paper before you submit it to a journal. (Indeed, if a paper seems to contain good science but is written in poor English, a journal may return the manuscript and suggest that it be edited by someone expert in English and then resubmit­ted.) If possible, the person providing feedback on your writing should be familiar with your field of science. Otherwise, although the person may cor­rect grammar problems and other mechanical errors, he or she might not detect errors in scientific expression—and might inadvertently introduce errors (such as when one editor repeatedly changed the technical term “contracture” to “con­traction”). Possible reviewers include colleagues at your institution or else­where who write well in English, professional editors at your institution, and teachers of scientific writing. Some professional English-language scientific- editing services exist. You also may be able to identify suitable editors through organizations such as the Council of Science Editors (www.CouncilScience Editors.org), the European Association of Science Editors (www.ease.org.uk), and the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (www.bels.org).

6. MORE RESOURCES

Many online resources can help non-native speakers write in English about science. One example is Academic Phrasebank (www.phrasebank.manchester .ac.uk), which lists phrases useful in various parts of a scientific paper. Another is Grammar Girl (www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl), which provides advice on grammar, punctuation, word choice, and related topics. Websites for users of English as a foreign language—for example, UsingEnglish.com (www .usingenglish.com)—also can be helpful.

You can find many such resources through the website of AuthorAID (www .authoraid.info), a project mainly to help researchers in developing countries write about and publish their work. The online resource library at this site includes links to many online resources. It also includes PowerPoint presen­tations, articles, and other materials on scientific writing and related subjects. In addition, the AuthorAID site contains a blog on communicating research. And through the site you can seek a mentor to advise you in your writing and related work. Although primarily for researchers in developing countries, the AuthorAID resources can also help researchers elsewhere with their writing. As a scientist from Japan said, “When it comes to scientific writing, every country is a developing country.”

A goal of AuthorAID, like that of this book, is to increase researchers’ knowledge, skill, and confidence regarding scientific writing and publication. If English is not your native language, do not feel discouraged. And when your paper is accepted by an international journal, consider celebrating twice: once in your native language and once in English.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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