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Moving Out of the Shadows: Publishing From the Rest of the World

Credit: Chris Gladis

The traditional formula for success in science is simple enough: Publish or perish. It's easier to say than to do, however. For scientists who aren't native English speakers--and those who live in parts of the world where English isn't the main language--meeting the standard is especially hard. The most important science journals, after all, are in English. And the difficulties these scientists face go well beyond the language barrier.

In many South and Central European countries, scientists who want to make a global mark must deal with resource limitations, isolation, and cultural differences in the way information is presented. "The pressure on scholars around the world to publish in English is really growing. A lot of governments and institutions do use it as a marker of quality," says Mary Jane Curry of the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester in New York.

Scientists on the cultural periphery

Scientists keep up with the work of their peers by reading scientific journals, attending conferences, and participating in informal international networks. In all of these, English tends to be the dominant language. But language isn't the only barrier. "In an Anglophone context, [scholars] have more money to go to conferences or get books," says Curry, an assistant professor of foreign language and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) education. In many countries of South and Central Europe, scientists who want to attend international conferences "have to pay for it themselves," and their institutions may only provide access to top journals. As a consequence, she says, scientists "on the periphery" of the English-speaking scientific community may not have a complete knowledge of the relevant literature, which makes it much harder to meet the high standards of the most important science journals. Also, "they may not have a broad knowledge of all the journals in the field that might be suitable," says Curry, so they may not know where to turn when rejected by the most selective journals.

In some small, non-English-speaking countries in Central Europe, there's not much tradition of scientific publishing. There is the feeling in such countries that "we are too small" to publish good science and that "nobody cares," says Ana Marušić, editor-in-chief of the Croatian Medical Journal and president-elect of the Council of Science Editors. Scientists in these countries may do research "of global interest," adds Marušić, who is involved in setting up workshops for authors and scientific writing courses for students in Croatia, but even when they do, they may not know how to present their data well enough to get it published.

Even scientists with good proficiency in English may struggle with differences of custom. Information is structured differently in different languages, for example; what "is given priority and prominence, especially in the introduction and abstract," may vary from one language to the next, says Sally Burgess, an applied linguist at the University of La Laguna in Spain. Standard style and structure vary among disciplines and publication types--conference abstracts, scientific reports, research manuscripts, and so on--and these variations are harder to detect for those with weaker English skills. So Burgess advises scientists outside the linguistic mainstream to read the scientific literature "not just for content information but also for the form in which other researchers express their ideas."

Still, language issues may not be as important as some struggling writers make them out to be. "The novice writer makes a big mistake in blaming language knowledge for everything," says Mary Ellen Kerans, a freelance editor who works directly with clinical and biomedical researchers; she is also chair of the Mediterranean Editors and Translators association in Barcelona, Spain. "Developing writers have just as many problems with their native language."

Their own ideas

"Young scientists in some countries have spent a great deal of time ... replicating in rote form the ideas of other people," says Kerans. They may have had "little opportunity to explore their own ideas and get feedback. This makes it almost impossible for them to feel confident producing good arguments in the introduction and discussion sections, and so they just write what amounts to a list of what's in the literature." Kerans recommends what she calls "exploratory writing": Explaining your research to a colleague in an e-mail, for example, provides an opportunity to put the research into context and describe it in written words.

Scientists with inadequate language skills may even run a risk of plagiarizing. "There is a fine line between legitimate use of sentences--for example, in the materials and methods" section, where similar techniques may have been used in earlier studies--and plagiarism, says Burgess. "Many people, when they write, think 'My English is not very good' [or] 'I am not a very experienced writer even if English is my first language.' " They may be tempted to lift chunks of text from other papers, Burgess says, running the risk of appearing to claim undue credit.

Making and accepting criticism

In Anglophone countries, scientific journal clubs are very common. In these informal meetings, scientists discuss journal articles, cultivating critical attitudes and skills that they can apply to their own work, Kerans says. But journal clubs are far less common in South and Central Europe. The solution? Set up your own journal club, or as Curry advises, read and critically discuss the work of your scientific peers.

Such critiques help scientists prepare for the review-and-revision process. Getting reviewers' comments back "is a very vulnerable position to be in," says Curry, and "young researchers often are very discouraged" by reviews. Many non-native English speakers find the comments overwhelming and difficult to understand, especially when the phrasing is polite rather than clear, Curry says. These scientists may choose to send their papers out to a local-language journal, or file it and forget about it, she says, rather than fixing the problems and getting their work published in an international journal.

They need to stick it out. "They need to develop a thick skin and really try to understand what the reviews mean, even if they contradict each other, and see how to respond," Curry says.

Getting started

Young scientists need experience writing papers, and the best way to get it is to communicate their results "as soon as they feel what they have is worth communicating," says Angel Cardama, a professor of telecommunications engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain. Paola De Castro, head of the Publishing Unit of the Italian National Institute of Health in Rome, Italy, advises submitting early efforts to journals published in their native language so that they can acquire scientific writing skills without being distracted by language issues. "Research criteria are not so different in different countries. The logic is more or less the same" in all research papers, says De Castro, so it's best to learn one lesson at a time.

When writing for an English-medium publication, most experts agree, it's best to write directly in English--although "there is nothing wrong mixing the two languages" in early drafts, Kerans says. It may even be necessary to write some key paragraphs in your native language to detect inadequacy in the argumentation. Once you are confident the arguments are convincing, you can translate them back with the help, if needed, of a more experienced colleague.

Finally, new authors should "read the instructions to authors again and again before completion of the manuscript because it always [gives] some key solutions," Kerans says. Authors should write with a clear sense of who their audience is, which comes, she says, from "reading a great deal."

Getting support

Scientific writing hasn't traditionally been part of the university curriculum, but such courses are becoming more common at universities and other research institutions. De Castro recommends taking a course, if possible, in order to learn the basic rules and avoid common mistakes before sending off a manuscript. Beyond research institutions, the European Association of Science Editors and the Council of Science Editors, among other organisations, offer local courses to help researchers get published in English-language journals. Some institutions, such as the Italian National Institute of Health, also have a publishing unit to help researchers with their manuscripts, says De Castro. And professional translators and editors often provide excellent service, says Burgess, although these services may be "beyond the reach of young scientists without generous research grants." These days, even some journals work directly with non-native-English-speaking authors when the language makes their submissions difficult to understand. Finally, the Council of Science Editors is supporting the development of an Internet-based facility--AuthorAID--through which non-native English speakers may receive one-on-one advice, Marušić says.

No matter what language you speak, building an international network is crucial to your scientific future. While researching the issues faced by scholars in Hungary, Slovakia, Spain, and Portugal, Curry and colleagues found that "scholars sometimes don't have high-level English proficiency but publish in high journals." Their success, Curry says, is "because they can draw [on] a network of people that help out."

"Even non-English may be really successful and publish in really high impact journals. But ambitious targets are reached with great efforts and step by step," says De Castro. "The first basic need is to balance humility and ambition."

Additional Resources

- Scientific Style and Format , 7th edition, Council of Science Editors, 2006 ($US59.95)

- How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper , R. A. Day and B. Gastel, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006 ($US29.95)

- Bates College's Introduction to Journal-Style Scientific Writing

- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals

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