The responsibilities of the English-speaking co-author

In order to disseminate their work as widely as possible, non-English speaking scientists face the dual challenges of both writing in another language, and writing in a rather unforgivingly technical form of that language. My awareness of how difficult I would find it to write a scientific paper in French or Spanish (let alone something like Mandarin) makes me hesitant to criticise the English of papers written by foreign authors too strongly, although – unfair as it probably is – there has to be some minimum standard of comprehensibility.
However, my patience with hard-to-decipher prose is worn rather thinner when I see people who are obviously native English-speakers on the co-author list. By accepting co-authorship plaudits, you become associated with, and thus take some responsibility for, the contents of the paper. As I see it, that responsibility doesn’t just cover the scientific validity of the results being presented, but the paper’s effectiveness at communicating those results. Your involvement in the research might be due to being an expert on a particular technique or field area, and you would be remiss if you didn’t use that expertise to improve any manuscript you were asked to be a co-author on. By the same token, if you are a native English speaker working with foreign scientists, not contributing your “expertise” (if you can call it that) in written English also seems like an abdication of your responsibilities. It also seems rather unsympathetic to the difficulties faced by non-English speakers wanting to publish in high-impact journals.
Of course, I realise that it’s not quite that simple: what if you’ve just provided a dataset, or access to and training for a nifty new bit of kit in your laboratory (of course, if that’s the case, then perhaps you shouldn’t be listed as a co-author anyway)? Plus, given the normal expectation (at least in my field) that the first author is the principal author, there is obviously a balance between helping someone to communicate better in their own words, and replacing their voice with your own (and possible problems with people who regard any attempts at correction in that light).
I’d be interested to hear your opinions on this. In the circumstances described above, is the co-author responsible for a badly written paper?

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Comments (15)

  1. humorix says:

    That’s true that there is a wholesale trade, a very big effort has make in translation. The translators on Internet are not very dependable. There is software has develop. And especially: a good spelling correction before testing hundreds of sentences to find an expression.
    C’est vrai qu’il y a un gros, un tr?®s gros effort a faire en mati?®re de traduction. Les traducteurs sur internet ne sont pas tr?®s fiables. Il y a des logiciels a d?©velopper. Et surtout: une bonne correction orthographique avant de tester des centaines de phrase pour retrouver une expression.

  2. the bug guy says:

    I’ve co-authored numerous papers with non-native speaking scientists from several different countries and part of the laboratory expectation was for the native or near-native writers to make sure that the manuscript was clear to read. It can sometimes be a challenge to reach that clarity and keep the author’s intent, but I think that’s part of the job.

  3. Sigmund says:

    I work in Sweden, as the only native English speaker in a research group here.
    In my opinion there can be quite a lot of difficulties over this matter since a lot of non-native speakers assume they are fluent in English and will feel insulted if you point out a mistake.
    Perhaps this is more likely in a European context rather than an Asian one (where authors are more likely to be less fluent in English) but I don’t think you should simply assume that just because someone is fluent in English that he or she will have the deciding say in the English used in the submitted manuscript.

  4. Edward says:

    I’m in the middle of just such a situation right now. I have a paper where I’m a middle author and the English is stilted at best. I’ve previously communicated to both the first author (non-native English speaker) and the last (senior) author (native English speaker) that the English needs some work. I’ve made significant legitimate scientific contributions to the paper and it has been through several drafts, but despite my comments, it still hasn’t been fixed. I have other papers to work on, and I just don’t have the time to pick over the grammar, especially given that my previous comments seem to have been ignored.
    I think that it is the responsibility of the 1st author to seek and listen to advice on language if they are not a native speaker. I also think any senior authors share in this responsibility. However, given my own experience, I’m not holding language issues in a paper against a middle author.

  5. Kim says:

    I’ve seen situations where grad students carried the burden of making a paper comprehensible – that’s a particularly delicate situation.
    In general, I would guess that improving the writing of a paper could increase its impact – if readers understand the results, they may be more likely to make use of them and cite them. (Whether a middle author would get much benefit from that would depend on the paper and on the research field, I imagine.)

  6. Becca says:

    As the only native English speaker in our lab group, as well as the only graduate student (others are all post-docs; no techs or other flavors of scientists) I get a LOT of editing duties.
    I just hope that if I have to drop out of grad school, someone will give me a scientific writing or editing job.

  7. Judy says:

    I’ve always heard that English is one of the toughest languages to master. And the written (the correct written) form is even worse. On top of which you’ve got ‘mercan English and that stuff they talk in Britain. But y’all are all writers after my own heart. I sometimes wonder if anybody cares about proper grammar at all any more. Forget spelling. I’m happy to see someone show concern.

  8. humorix says:

    The discution of belly buttons touches only the belt

  9. Andrew says:

    The coauthor’s most important task is to make sure that nothing’s obviously wrong. It’s in the coauthor’s self-interest to do more, but that isn’t always feasible for reasons of time or personality. Coauthors and journal editors and peer reviewers do what they can, but to get things really right requires a gifted copyeditor. As any copyeditor and honest writer will tell you, editing is a whole different skill set from writing.
    The lead author should have institutional support (or at least a line in the grant) to get professional copyediting done for publications in a second language. (Disclaimer: I do such work.)

  10. Polytrope says:

    Editing the english of papers on which you are a co-author is payback for the fact that most of the time you get to write and work in your native language. End of story. I would always regard it as part of my responsibility to edit or (better still) to talk the collaborator concerned through why I am editing it so that they learn for next time. If lead author won’t listen then tell him/her bluntly that it is *not comprehensible*. Period.

  11. Bob O'H says:

    I agree with Chris – if you’re an author on a paper, you have to take responsibility, and getting the language right is one important part. I’ve seen this from both sides – I work in Finland, so most of my co-authors are non-native speakers, and wherever I am on the author list, I feel obliged to make sure the language is in good shape.
    From the other side as a reviewer of manuscripts, I don’t like having to wade through poorly written, grammatically incorrect prose. I have sympathy if the authors aren’t native speakers, but it rapidly declines when I find that one of them is a native speaker – I don’t see why I should have to struggle if the authors had done their jobs properly.
    Edward – stick to your guns! You can point out that reviewers are less likely to look positively on a paper if it’s poorly written. You could also suggest that the paper undergoes language correction before submission.

  12. csrster says:

    I was once faced with reviewing a paper with a non-native speaking first author and an English-speaking second author. The quality of the English was so poor that I felt sure the second author could not have had any input at all to the text. Imo, this isn’t good enough – every author should read and comment on a manuscript before it it is submitted (things may function differently in other fields where multi-multi-author papers are more common). In my report I basically refused to review the content of the paper until it had been properly corrected by the second author. If there had been no native-speaker on the author list then I’m sure I would have set the bar much lower.

  13. RebeccaF says:

    “I’ve always heard that English is one of the toughest languages to master.”
    Interesting, seeing as English has no gendered ‘the’, no cases, a very forgiving sentence structure and several other features that make its grammar relatively easy. Compare this to languages such as German (my native language), Norwegian or Mandarin. I think it’s more a case of English usually being the first foreign language someone learns, which is usually the hardest to acquire.

  14. djlactin says:

    I recently encountered this problem. I am proofreading a paper which has as authors a handful of Koreans and one native English speaker (I presume: anglo name, based in Canada). This paper has probably the worst English I have ever seen — like it was translated from Korean to English via Swahili, using Babelfish.
    I do believe that the English speaker has an obligation to at least attempt to make the English comprehensible. (Granted, many native English speakers have a great deal of difficulty writing comprehensible technical prose!)

  15. Lab Lemming says:

    Chris, have you normalized the readability against the offending english-speaking co-author’s solo papers? There are plenty of monolingual english-speaking scientists who write terribly. Who knows, the paper you read may have been a great read before the non-native authors gave it to the anglo to stuff up.