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Journal editors and reviewers need to evaluate papers on scientific merit, not language

14 December 2023

By Jim McKinley, Heath Rose

typewriter with the union jack flag

© Thomas Faull

How to ensure global research output is not disenfranchised by outdated attitudes on language quality

English has quickly become the world’s default lingua franca for academic publishing. In fact, in 2022, English-language content from ScienceDirect was downloaded in 157 different countries. According to publication data from Nature Indexopens in new tab/window, China now tops the US in terms of high quality publications in the natural sciences (see Table 1), with substantial contributions from Germany, the UK, Japan, and France. Other data found in an Elsevier reportopens in new tab/window has indicated an ongoing trend that English is supplanting local languages as the default language of scientific publication by authors based in many of these countries.

Top 10 countries ordered by research output in the natural sciences image

Table 1: Top 10 countries ordered by research output in the natural sciences (Source: Nature Index)

With the increase of researchers using English around the world comes an increase of English writers, readers, teachers, reviewers, and editors, who must work within standards of academic English, which — for many — is not their dominant or “native” language.

A research report into journal guidelinesopens in new tab/window revealed many journals prioritize “good academic English” or “error-free English” in the review process without understanding how the constraints of academic English pose significant barriers to academics who use English as a foreign, second or additional languageopens in new tab/window. Writing research for publication is problematically benchmarked in some author guidelines to “native speaker” standards, such as asking for a native speaker to check a manuscript before submission rather than benchmarking desired standards to research competence or expert knowledge in the field. Indeed, in the list of “Editor Decision Phrases” for Elsevier journal editor decisions introduced in early 2021, the phrase “In its current state, the level of English throughout your manuscript does not meet the journal’s required standard. You may wish to ask a native speaker to check your manuscript for grammar, style and syntax…” was included. (The phrase has since been edited to replace “native speaker” with “fluent English speaker”.)

Some editors and reviewers might be evaluating academic work on language grounds rather than scientific contribution. At its worst, high quality research might struggle to get through the review process because of weak written language, and poorer quality research might be obscured by authors who have a good flair for writing. But of course, good research needs to be comprehensible to a broad international readership to have a desired impact. In its simplest terms, the need to write for academic publishing is torn between two conflicting forces: a need for linguistic clarity in journal publications so that research can be understood with unambiguity; and a need to be inclusive of a global academic community, many of whom use English as a lingua franca.

In a further position paper published in an Elsevier journalopens in new tab/window we argue that, as the publishing industry has globalized and “Englishized”, authors now write up their research for a global heterogenous academic audience, where academics who use English as a lingua franca are now in the majority. Our review and editorial processes, therefore, must strive to be inclusive of this global authorship and international readership, and be reflective of the 21st century reality of English as a truly global research language.

How can we achieve this? First, journals might need to critically evaluate their author guidelines for any discriminatory content which might discourage submissions from a heterogenous authorship. For example, in the journal Systemopens in new tab/window, the Editors-in-Chief petitioned to change the author guidelines to remove mention of “native-checks” and marketing that specifically targeted “non-native” speakers to more impartially state: “The journal accepts work written in the English language. Authors who feel their English language manuscript may require editing to eliminate possible grammatical or spelling errors may wish to use the English Language Editing service available from Elsevier's WebShop.”

Other journals such as the Journal of Cardiology of the Youngopens in new tab/window, go further in their inclusive stance, writing:

The language of the Journal is English, but acceptance of a manuscript will reflect scientific rather than grammatical content. The editors undertake to facilitate the publication of papers from those authors whose native language is not English.

Second, although there is evidence of some flexibility, journal editors may need to develop more tolerance for non-standard uses of English (e.g., “researches” and “evidences” as the plural forms of research and evidence – “many researches” appears in more than 56,000 Elsevier papers and “several evidences” in more than 5,500; the use of the preposition “of” either in place of “for”, such as “responsible of” – found in about 173,000 Elsevier papers, or superfluously, such as “despite of” – found in about 278,000 Elsevier journal articles) when reviewing texts at the first stage of submission.

Third, editors could provide clearer guidelines to reviewers to ensure they are focusing on academic merit rather than language when evaluating a script. Fourth, journal publishers could develop better ways to support multilingual writers. The selling of editing services, such as that mentioned above, comes at a substantive cost to writers and has no guarantee to greater acceptance by the journal. And arguably, the heavier the copyediting is, the more the substance of the original manuscript might be lost. Such editing services, or alternatives to services such as peer editing, which should be minimal, may be better signposted once a (conditional) accept decision has been reached in the peer-review process, and the academic merit of a paper has been judged as sound.

Calls for greater global inclusivity of authors have been around for decades, although real change is slow. Following trends of internationalization in academic publishing and the further predictions of a rise in the number of speakers of English as a lingua franca, we can predict that stakeholders engaging in academic English will continue to become broader and more global in profile. Editors and reviewers, as important gatekeepers of research, play a vital role in reducing English language-related barriers to scientific publishing to ensure our research output is equally global in profile.


Jim McKinley


Jim McKinley

University College London

Heath Rose


Heath Rose

The University of Oxford