The language tax, or linguistic injustice, refers to the increased difficulty that non-native English-speaking scientists face when publishing their work in academic journals. An academic’s publishing record is incredibly important — according to a study in PLoS ONE, a researcher’s success can be linked to being published in an English-language journal, which accounts for nearly 98% of all science publications. With several studies suggesting that 95% of the world’s population don’t have English as a first language, the language tax could mean a large proportion of biotechnology researchers are missing out on achieving their full career potential, based purely on their mother tongue. Here Neeraj Sanghani, Business Head of Products at Paperpal, CACTUS, discusses this linguistic injustice and how it can be addressed.
For over 200 years, getting published in a reputed academic journal has been seen as the gateway to success in a researcher’s career, with journal editors largely responsible for deciding who does and doesn’t get recognition for their scientific work. This has led to a high pressure to “publish or perish” in the scientific community, particularly impacting the growth potential of those in research institutions and universities.
The challenges of academic writing
Writing competently in English is widely seen as an essential skill for researchers looking to publish their work. However, in most undergraduate and PhD biotechnology courses there is limited formal training on academic writing — most of it is centred on research methods and data collection. Many researchers, especially those with English as a second language (ESL) find academic writing a challenging task. In a global survey by Editage, 76% of the respondents said manuscript preparation was a difficult step in the publication process, with English-language proficiency being a big part of the challenge.
Kathleen E. Grogan explains the challenge with scientific writing in a 2020 piece published in The Ecological Society of America: “What makes research exciting is the very thing that makes communicating research hard. The goal of a research publication is communicating what you have discovered, at the very limits of our collective knowledge, to those who were not with you on the journey.”
Challenges of ESL researchers
According to data compiled by Scott Montgomery in the book Does Science Need a Global Language, more than three-quarters of scientific papers are published in English and, in some fields, this figure exceeds 90%. The challenges of academic writing are then amplified for many ESL researchers, who must compete against native and non-native English speakers alike to secure their spot in a prestigious journal.
One of the largest problems for non-native English speakers is that it can take more time to research and write the paper. Many areas of manuscript preparation, from performing literature searches to digesting the latest research and understanding the technical requirements of individual journals, take longer and become more difficult when it’s in a language the researcher is not very fluent in.
When it comes to writing an academic paper, it is far more challenging to use specialist terminology and write a compelling argument in a second language. The same is true of grammar and vocabulary; non-native English-speaking scientists can find it difficult to identify the precise word needed to express their thoughts. Others, even those who are conversant in English, may struggle with the minutiae of grammar, such as parallelism or infinitives and gerunds in the passive voice.
Once the paper is finalised and submitted to a journal, the language tax can increase the chance of manuscript rejection for several reasons. First, ESL researchers whose writing and grammar are weaker than their scientific expertise may find it more difficult to succinctly express their ideas, resulting in a less impactful paper. Secondly, manuscripts that have poor language and are difficult to read are often rejected by the journal editor or peer reviewer, regardless of the credibility or impact of the science. Finally, an ESL researcher may also struggle with conforming to critical submission guidelines, for instance, recommended structure, references, length and key declarations, especially if they are unfamiliar with the language used to detail these journal requirements.
Rejection due to poor language, spelling and grammar can lower a researcher’s confidence and increase their stress levels, thus perpetuating the cycle. A study in Written Communication investigated the added burden faced by Mexican and Taiwanese researchers when writing research articles in English (Hanauer et al., 2018). Non-native English speakers had an average 24% increase in terms of difficulty, while dissatisfaction rose 10%, and anxiety levels jumped 22%.
However, research published in BioScience titled Predicting Publication Success for Biologists (William F. Laurance, et al., 2013) suggested that native English speakers, males, and those who published earlier in their careers have only ‘minor advantages’ in the long term. The study identified a scientist’s pre-PhD publication record as the biggest benefit, highlighting the importance for young academics, who may be the least confident of all, to have access to tools that can help them master the English language early in their academic journey.
How can we level the playing field?
The academic community has already come a long way in addressing language barriers in science. Many universities, institutions, and publishers, such as BioMed Central and Springer, offer multi-lingual online resources on manuscript writing and choosing a journal. There are also training courses and mentorship schemes that researchers can sign up for that can help build their confidence; some conferences also offer bilingual mentors and presenters.
Moreover, artificial intelligence (AI) and smart tools have emerged as a great solution to support ESL researchers with manuscript preparation. Previously, a researcher would have to rely on a non-specialist grammar checking tool, which would identify missing apostrophes, but would be unable to understand the scientific detail of the researcher’s work, which could result in less valuable suggestions. New technology in the market is trained on millions of pre- and post-edited academic manuscripts, meaning that the software is able to make more relevant suggestions.
AI platforms also minimize the need for editing and proofreading, and speed up the time taken to submit successfully. However, AI-based tools have evolved beyond the capabilities of the more traditional editing services and tools. There are assistive writing tools available that present researchers with real-time suggestions as they write, including recommendations for alternative phrasing and word choices, apart from spelling and grammar checks. Having these recommendations not only helps instantly improve the author’s overall academic writing quality, it can also boost their confidence.
In addition to supporting researchers while they write, AI tools can help with the submission process. Journals can host AI editing tools on their website, to check a researcher’s manuscript against journal specific requirements, such as referencing, declarations or mistakes in figures and tables, to ensure a paper doesn’t get rejected based on an avoidable oversight.
So, how do these tools stand up? Research from Dora Alexopoulou of the University of Cambridge assessed the performance of seven AI English writing and editing tools (Paperpal, Grammarly, InstaText, Trinka, AJE, QuillBot and Writefull) based on three 500-word samples of academic preprint text from life sciences, physics and humanities fields.
The study revealed that Paperpal and InstaText had the highest number of accepted suggestions, which improved text more than the other tools. It also showed these two tools provided the highest number of alternative wordings and phrasings, suggesting that they were most likely to have a positive impact on the readability of the text.
Considering that 95% of the world’s population are non-native English speakers, levelling the playing field in scientific publishing is an important way to ensure the best researchers, and not only the best writers, get their work recognised. As AI and machine learning evolve and are better able to understand scientific terms and concepts, smart assistive writing tools will be able to take the role of a trusted advisor, pointing out areas for improvement as a supervisor or colleague would. With committed effort, we can overcome the language tax and democratise biotechnology publishing for all researchers, regardless of the language they speak.
Editor’s Note: Neeraj Sanghani is Business Head of Products at Paperpal. He is an entrepreneur and executive with leadership experience in building Direct- To-Consumer (DTC) digital products, business strategy, e-commerce, and data-driven marketing. He is passionate about combining multi-disciplinary experience with customers and market understanding to build and scale profitable businesses.