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Publish with us

The lasting language of publication? - Part II

15 March 2023

By Christopher Tancock

Wooden alphabet tiles scattered across metallic surface

How to succeed in publishing in English even if it's not your mother tongue

In part I of this mini-series, we presented new research from Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research illustrating how English is now being consistently preferred above the official language for many countries. In the geographies studied, English is now selected five times as often as the national language for journal article publication! Whether the position of English as lingua franca of academic publishing is guaranteed long term is uncertain. However, and in spite of the headaches it causes, a good command of English pays dividends if you want to get published (and noticed)…  Let's look at how you can succeed even if English isn't your first language.

The importance of English

Being able to negotiate capably in English throughout the publication process is vitally important. As an author, you must first convince the editor to take your article further into peer review. Presenting your work in clear, comprehensible English does a lot of heavy liftingopens in new tab/window there since roughly a third of manuscripts are rejected on grounds of (poor) language. The next hurdle is the referees. If they are distracted by pointing out language issues, they are less likely to recommend publication. Finally, even if you are eventually accepted for publication – and even if you’re working in a field where the quality of prose is less important – it’s still a good idea to make your work as accessible as it can be. After all, if your work can be read and understood by the broadest audience, its impact will be that much greater.

But what about local language publishing?

Since English is so widely spoken and is commonly used for communication between those whose native languages differ, articles published in English are perhaps more widely read and cited more often than articles published in local languages. Why, then, might authors choose to publish in their local language? Well, for a start, in several subject areas, it might be logical to publish in a local language at least at first if the focus of one’s work is such that doing so will make most sense and if doing so will align with the language of stakeholders (e.g., funding bodies). Authors might, in some cases, be mandated to publish in the local language. Generally-speaking though, despite the unfairness of the situation, it’s usually the case that an English publication will secure you far more readership, notice and impact.

How to succeed in English

This, then, leaves those of you who don’t speak English as a mother tongue at a considerable disadvantage. And even for those who do, academic English is its own dialect which can take some getting used to! What can you do to ensure that your publication efforts are successful? Here are our top tips for getting by in English:

  • Ensure your level of English is as good as it can be. Watch television, read books and news, listen to the radio, and practise your English at every opportunity.

  • Take advantage of any classes and other support offered by your institution.

  • Make use of the many English language learning resources online, for example on YouTube and elsewhere.

  • Read regularly from the journals in which you hope to be published yourself to get a feel for the style and level of language.

  • If you struggle with English grammar, consider the use of tools like Grammarlyopens in new tab/window (or simply buy a good grammar guide and brush up).

  • Find a friend/colleague/mentor who’s either a native speaker of English or someone with an excellent ability and ask them to read your work before submission.

  • Learn from your mistakes. If an editor/reviewer points out a linguistic error in your work, make a note of it and avoid repetition in the future.

  • Consider paying for professional language translation or correction for your work. There are several online solutions including Elsevier’s Author Servicesopens in new tab/window.

  • Avoid the tendency (summed up by Bill Brysonopens in new tab/window as “the practice of never calling a spade a spade if you may instead call it a manual earth-restructuring implement”) to write in complex, flowery or dense style.

  • Go the extra mile. Whilst some subjects place less emphasis on the quality of prose, if you want to produce work that is maximally accessible, write in clear, compelling and engaging English.

  • Check, re-check and check your work again thoroughly before submission, both for language, content and cohesion. (Then check it once more before you hit the “send” button!)

However you feel about it, English occupies a commanding position in the field of academic publishing. Whether it’s here to stay is debatable (though it certainly shows no signs of budging for now). And regardless of how much more we could (and should) be doing to ensure that more of what is published in language other than English is available to the global community, it’s clear that being able to write in good English is indispensable. In any case, we hope that the above suggestions will make your next venture into publishing somewhat easier.

Further reading

Links to Elsevier videos/resources