Editing English, academic hierarchies and “native-speaker” bias

There have recently been several articles circulating about peer reviewers chastising academic writers from non-English speaking backgrounds for their use of English. One wonderful reply from an editor argued that peer reviewers should solely judge works on the merits of their arguments. Sorting out the technical proficiency of the English is the editor’s job, and this is a task to be approached in a kind and non-judgemental way.

Scholars in many countries are under significant pressure to publish articles in Anglo-American journals. This is increasingly the case in Croatia and Serbia, as the following initiative from an area studies journal noted. Learning to write in an academic style, expressing a voice, and honing arguments takes time and requires high-level language skills. The demand to do so in two or more languages means a lot more effort is required than for scholars publishing in one language alone.

Yet the support authors receive varies considerably across institutions and countries. In Germany, there is often considerable funding available for editorial work and some research institutes have an in-house editor. In other countries, such as Serbia and Croatia, I found academic English language editing was sometimes done by editors from those countries who had studied English at university. Here, this was a “good enough” solution as the authors’ messages were communicated, even if technical issues remained with the English. But this meant that such texts were often overlooked by readers who saw the language errors over the arguments and concepts.

Various “foreign-speaker” errors are sometimes used as strategies to gatekeep academic privilege. My own previous experience as a peer reviewer and academic author was revealing. As an author, I noticed that when I wrote about Croatian linguistic topics and had a Croatian academic affiliation, I received more peer review critiques of my use of language. This suggests some reviewers had made assumptions about my language background. In situations where I was involved in peer reviewing texts, I noticed other reviewers on several occasions emphasize “problems with the use of English” at the start of their reviews.

These forms of bias and prejudice typically affect scholars more intensely when they start to publish. During the PhD or as an early postdoc, scholars are often more sensitive and susceptible to negative peer reviews. Such scholars are just beginning to publish and often work in precarious conditions. They are also more likely to receive negative peer reviews on the content of their work as they have not yet had time to internalize the deeper, unspoken conventions of their discipline(s).

Every article that is rejected, or for which extensive corrections and a “language edit” is demanded, takes time away from other activities. Finding a solution obviously depends on both funding available and wider resources within academic networks. Where little funding is available for English language copy-editing and proofreading, more academic solidarity is required. But there is no section of the academic CV giving explicit credit for proofreading and copy-editing skills completed while helping colleagues. This could be recognized, as could the amount of effort that goes into becoming a proficient academic writer in two or more languages.

What are your experiences of such differences? And what changes could help diminish these differences and inequalities?

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