Allow me to set some context first. I am a white, straight (happily married), male university professor named Ian MacGregor. I have never had to worry about my basic needs. For most of my childhood and adolescence, I enjoyed a very comfortable life, economically. I went to bilingual private schools and fortunately ended up in a public university by choice. I was always supported by my family while pursuing a Master’s degree and, afterward, a Ph.D. Long story short, besides being a very committed and intense working person, I have always been a quite privileged guy. And you may be wondering: Why is he contributing to this issue? Why was he even invited? Well, it turns out that I was born and raised in a beautiful country that lies outside the “Global Northern dimension”: Mexico. So, that makes me a privileged third-worlder.
While developing in academia, I have understood the importance of the English language in the business. I understand that having a common language is a pragmatic way of making science available to a large number of people from across the globe. It is like scientific names; most of them are Latin (with important Greek and other regional “latinized” elements). While preserving the variation and diversity of wildlife species’ common names (as happens in Latin America, where one single species can have over a dozen of common names across a country or region), using scientific names allows us all to understand what we are specifically talking about. What I am not in any agreement with is that many editors and reviewers–and when I say “many” I mean lots of them–expect, and even demand as a publication standard, for non-native English speakers to turn in manuscripts that read as if they were written by native speakers. There surely are honorable exceptions, but they are a rare species in the ecosystem.
Although I was taught the English language at home and in school since preschool, during my Master’s I faced one of the biggest “boogiemen” of science for non-native speakers, at least to those that do not have the resources to overcome the bad luck of not having been born in a country in which English is the mother tongue. And, no joke, this is quite a substantial handicap. I will provide some anonymous information to depict why I strongly believe that the English language represents a real handicap for many of us (which comes in different magnitudes based on many other handicaps, some of which are covered in this issue). For instance, I have a highly qualified colleague back in Mexico, actually a top scientist in the field, who has to go through the struggle of writing papers in Spanish, have them translated to English (note that this kind of service is not at all cheap), then having corrections and rebuttal letters translated, and so on. A normalized nightmare! This implies that research by colleagues that must put themselves through all of this do not only require having funds for translation services (or have some close English native-speaking colleagues to help out), but the publication process also takes quite longer than that of a native speaker for manuscripts, even on equal quality standards.
I write my drafts using my self-recognized deficient English, which has gotten better with time. Yet, I still have to pay or ask for grammar checks almost every single time I write a paper. And after authoring over 130 science publications, most of them in English, I have my manuscripts double-checked because I am literally fed up with all the rude and odd scenarios that I have had to put up with just because my English grammar does not meet some kind of standard. Dozens and dozens of times I have been “kindly advised” by editors and reviewers to have a native speaking colleague or professional service check the grammar for clarity. Allow me to make a brief pause here. Across languages, there is enormous variation in the skills and baggage to write properly. To say the least, I know Spanish native speakers that can turn in quite flawed texts, which are actually impossible to follow. So, assuming that just because someone is a native speaker does not warrant manuscripts having desired grammar standards.
Nonetheless, it does not seem that the situation has only to do with how the papers are written. Although this is based on my personal experience and I have no causal evidence of it, I know dozens and dozens of colleagues that have similar experiences and stories. Let me try to explain with an example: I once got a grant that allowed me to send an important manuscript out for English grammar review to a certified translator company. I sent that manuscript for review and I was kindly asked by the editor (following the suggestion of the three reviewers!) to check my flawed English grammar. I immediately asked for a certificate from the company and then the issue did not rise again in that specific editorial process. But why? Really, why? Most of my colleagues and I believe that the riddle starts with the affiliation, where Mexico is elegantly displayed (sometimes as we write it in Spanish –México– although some editorials tend to prefer the international name without the “accent mark”). Every now and then I let a paper go out for review without the fantastic job of a colleague that has become my “appointed proofreader” and the feedback from journals is always, at some point, to review the English grammar. Regarding the manuscripts I send her on a regular basis, she basically makes minor edits (that enlighten the paper in a fantastic way, I must confess, although it should not be required!) and often fewer than five comments regarding a lack of clarity, and that is all. After those changes are done and I inform the journal of the proofreading process, everyone is happy. I have directly asked her if, in general, my manuscripts can be followed, if the science is clear, if the study is repeatable, and the answer is yes. The English grammar is not perfect, obviously, but why should it be?
Although large editorials and regional journals are trying to provide services to overcome this handicap, the reality is that non-native English speakers, and I mostly refer to those from across the Global South, not only have to struggle with lack of resources, insecurity in the field, etc., etc.; but there is also this additional hurdle. As I previously shared, there are honorable exceptions; editors and reviewers that value the science of paper with flawed English grammar or wording and invest, as native speakers, on commenting and suggesting detailed edits. But woefully, I must confess that I have only came across a few of those committed colleagues throughout my entire career.
In decolonizing science, we need to open our eyes to this issue (among the many others that are biasing our comprehension of global and other regional patterns and processes), which is a regular malpractice among editors and reviewers from most research areas (based on chatting with friends and colleagues from the humanities, exact sciences, medicine, etc.). I have even been “kindly invited” to review the English grammar of papers by people who turn in their reviewer formats with terrible English grammar (some even presumably non-native English speakers, according to some of my literate English native speaking colleagues). I believe there are multiple ways of solving this riddle, but none of them include exercising the privilege of being a native speaker and kindly, and sometimes not even so, asking colleagues to review their English grammar or wording. Neither is the solution to expect Shakespearean manuscripts from non-native English speakers (apologies for the exaggerated joke; it comes out of aged frustration). The idea of having a common language in science is for it to create a common ground of communication, and that is something editors and reviewers need not forget, because it has represented one of the limitations for science from understudied Global Southern regions to get to the “major league” scientific literature.
Read the entire Decolonizing Science series:
1. Introduction: Decolonizing Science and a World Turned Upside Down by Madhusudan Katti and Jess Auerbach
2. Towards a New Understanding of the Relationship Between Humans and Nature by Shubhobroto Ghosh
3. What Will It Take to Decolonize Ecology? by Adriana Romero-Olivares and Prakash Kashwan
4. If Colonialism in Africa is Dead, Would That Make Forest Conservation its Ghost? by Emmanuel Nuesiri
5. What Does Decolonization Mean for Conservation? by Subhashini Krishnan and Sutirtha Lahiri
6. Decolonizing Science Means Taking Indigenous Knowledge Seriously by Dina Lupin
7. On Decolonizing the Law: Views from a South African Legal Scholar by Caiphas Brews Soyapi
8. Decolonizing Science and the Bias Against Non-Native English Speakers by Ian MacGregor-Fors
A very sorry tale.
When learning science at high school we were told that around the turn of the 19th – 20th century (roughly ?) German was the international language of science because most science was being done there. Fluency in German, or at least an understanding, was a requirement. It would be interesting to find out if non-German speakers had similar problems back then with the publication of papers.
But the wheel keeps turning. In the not-too-distant future the requirement might be fluency in Chinese or Russian.