Verbum sapienti sat est
A word, as noted in the above dictum, is sufficient to a wise person (whether it be in Latin or any other tongue). If you noticed any peculiarities with the title of this article, however, you’ll have understood that the choice of word(s) is crucial – it can help fashion a cogent, well respected argument or doom something otherwise good to fail pathetically. Language can also mean the difference between acceptance and rejection for a research paper…
The power of language
Editors of academic journals often mention three reasons for why a paper might be desk rejected (i.e. turned away before external peer review). One is scope (the paper is not the right “fit” for the journal); another is content (it’s just not good enough). The third, however, is language: poor manuscript language can tip a balance into the negative. A busy editor, struggling with a paper which is partially flawed or possibly tangential to the journal’s stated scope might gratefully seize on poor language as a quick yet justifiable reason to say “no thanks”. Poor language can also be interpreted as an indication of a lack of attention to other aspects of the article. As noted by an editor elsewhere: “the fastest way to lose the confidence of the editor, reviewers and readers in your work is to … give little care to grammar [and] spelling.”
The motto, then, is don’t let your paper fail due to poor language. It would be a shame if, after having potentially spent months on the research itself and considerable time in consolidating, checking and polishing the results, you fail to give sufficient attention to the description of what you’ve done and thus end up burying the gold under a layer of dirt, or discolouring it enough to make someone mistake it for dross. Even if you operate in a field where the quality of your prose is not a major consideration, writing well can deliver wider and long-lasting benefits.
As we have noted before in Authors’ Update, there are various things you can do to increase the impact of your research. Having an eye to SEO, preparing a lay summary and planning for public engagement are all good ways of ensuring you make a splash. Another way of doing so is to ensure you write carefully, clearly, and concisely. Having a well-written article will afford you various benefits: it will enable a wider range of readers to engage with your work, it will encourage them to interact further with the article (they might, for example, begin with the abstract then become “pulled in” by the strength of your writing) and they will be more inclined to read more from you in the future. By writing clearly and engagingly, you can reach a wider, more diverse audience and encourage them to invest in your research and future endeavours.
So, with the above admonitions, how can you do your homework well and give yourself the best chance of (linguistic) success? The first thing to note is that this is your responsibility, no-one else’s. It’s also something you must have taken care of before you press “submit”. There is no use assuming that “the reviewers will take care of any spelling/grammar issues” or “the copyeditors will do that”. For one thing, the editor will be looking at your paper before either of these (and, as noted above – you have to convince them that your paper is worth continuing with) and for another, reviewers are not there to spell check!
Advice you will often hear is that, if not a native speaker yourself, you should have someone who is look at your paper before finalizing it. Though well meant, there are two problems with that suggestion. One is that, generalizations aside, there is no reason why a non-native speaker might not command full mastery of English (or whatever the language of publication). The other is that there are plenty of examples of native speakers whose grasp of their own language is, shall we say, less than perfect (someone who would detect no problems with the title of this article, perhaps!). Thus, whilst it’s a good idea to secure a second pair of eyes for your paper, make sure they belong to someone with decent language skills!
As well as not neglecting basic “home remedies” e.g. using the spell check feature on your word processor or possibly using a language/grammar checking app, if you are truly concerned that your language skills could let you down, you could also consider using a language checking service. We’re interested in more than just stringing together a coherent sentence, however. To ensure that the strength and clarity of your writing will deliver maximum engagement for your research, you should also write with a view to producing a piece that is fun, interesting and rewarding to read. As Yeats put it: “think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people”. Clear communication (and this starts with how you frame your research) can have significant implications for science and humanity as a whole so make the most of your opportunity.
We hope that this has been a useful depiction of the power and potential impact (positive or negative) of language. Whatever your views on linguistic determinism, it’s clear that language underpins most human activity so why should academic publishing be any different? Use the explanations and suggestions in this article to make your next paper the best-written piece you’ve done. To close, simply consider this observation: writing is like selling – each word is an article in its own right, and each word should persuade the reader that they must have the next, whilst promoting greater enjoyment of the last.