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?

References: an Editor’s Perspective

When putting together an academic book or an edited collection, references can be a time-consuming challenge for all concerned.

Many academic authors are familiar with reference management software (e.g. Zotero, EndNote etc.). Editors and publishers, however, typically use different tools to help them with such work, including Edifix and macros.

Reference management software is often of little use to editors – especially in multi-authored collections where the authors have used different software or none at all.

Where references have been formatted according to a specific style, the programme “Edifix” can ensure the bibliography is formatted correctly. This programme checks both the formatting and available data on the reference across multiple databases. It is not that useful for more “obscure” works though, nor when the authors have followed their own style rather than a recognized style such as Chicago, MLA or similar. I found this out the hard way when one book’s referencing style minutely deviated from Chicago!

Academic copy-editors (including myself) typically charge for referencing separately and by the hour, as the work needed greatly depends on the text the author has provided. With messy texts, styling and formatting references can take as long as the language edit itself.

While academic journals often help with this task, some book publishers require academic authors to source their own copy-editing and reference formatting. Time and money can be saved here by getting into good habits early!

While not all of the checks are completed all of the time, the full list – as I learnt on the SfEP References course – includes the following:

(1) The in-text references should be cross-checked with the references list. Every in-text reference should be in the reference list. Macros can help with this.

A note on semantics: if you include extra references at the end, the list is usually referred to as a bibliography rather than reference list.

(2) If using a footnote + bibliography referencing style, the footnotes should be checked against the in-text references.

(3) The in-text/footnote references should have their formatting checked. If using Harvard style (e.g. Smith 2000, 87), this can be done relatively quickly using macros.

(4) The reference list/bibliography should be formatted. As mentioned, there are programmes such as Edifix that can help with this, but any list still needs checking through.

English Language Prescriptivism: Writing Tips for Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian Speakers

Those familiar with the 1990s language reforms and sensitivity surrounding the prescriptive use of words and linguistic forms designated “Croatian” will be unsurprised to hear that in Anglo-American circles, usage is generally more flexible and attention is directed towards other parts of the language. Nevertheless, purism and prescriptivism continue to exist and this can come up in language editing too.

One of the higher-level “markers of distinction” for academic English writing concerns the correct use of the relative pronouns who, that and which. This is relatively straightforward in Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian where it is almost always some variant of koji and for this reason, it is often mistakenly translated…

Issue one: that or who?

Upoznao sam čovjeka koji radi u supermarketu

This can be translated as:

I met a person that works in a supermarket

I met a person who works in a supermarket

NOT!! I met a person which works in a supermarket

Using “who” is a marker of distinction here, prescribed by certain Anglo-American style guides. The use of “that” is considered by some to be inferior. This is justified using the story that “that” only applies to things, and “who” to people. This conveniently ignores the fact that “whose” sometimes refers to things: e.g. “the car whose keys were in my back pocket.”

Some style guides, e.g. AP (The Associated Press Stylebook – especially used by media workers in the USA) insist on “who”, while many others do not. Insisting on “who” is often referred to in editing circles as being a “stickler” – a sitničar or cjepidlaka.

Issue two: that or which?

A second marker of distinction is between the use of “that” and “which” to refer to restricted and unrestricted clauses. This is a bit more complicated, and there is a semantic difference here of importance on occasion – but there is also a fuzzy grey zone in the middle where editors themselves are sometimes unsure.

Restricted “that” clauses are used when the sentence needs the next bit to continue – i.e. it contains crucial information. This is the case with the previous example – the bit of information about the person working in the supermarket is crucial to the sentence. Sometimes, it is a bit more ambiguous though, as in the following example:

The gold coins that are scratched are fake

The gold coins, which are scratched, are fake

Imagine you have a handful of gold coins. In the first example, the implied meaning is that in your hand you have a collection of coins, some of which are scratched and others of which are shiny – of those coins,  the scratched ones are fake.

In the second example, the middle clause adds additional (non-essential) information. It means that all the gold coins in your hand are scratched, and implies that all the gold coins in your hand are all fake.

The general rule of thumb is that the unrestricted “which” clause contains additional information and uses a comma before which, while the restricted “that” clauses do not take a comma. If you are still unsure about this, check out Grammar Girl’s excellent explainer!

Now if we take improving the clarity of the message communicated as central to editing, then making a judgement about a that/which distinction can be important on occasions. However, sometimes it isn’t that important and is used to mark out distinction too. To make things more complicated, in many varieties of UK English, that and which are more flexibly interchanged.

Being aware of these differences and knowing what they mean can help you get your head round more tricky language choices when writing in English!