PRE-EDITING NON-NATIVE ENGLISH-SPEAKING SCIENTISTS' RESEARCH
The typical biomedical scientist working in a non-English-speaking country believes the odds are more favorable in winning a lottery prize than having her/his publication accepted by an international journal of repute. This belief is reaffirmed each time the manuscript is rejected after having given it to translators, to postdocs having just returned from English-speaking countries; but not to native English-speaking Anglo-American colleagues. Even after having been run on state-of-the-art commercial editing and spelling software packages, the odds do not improve. Our research indicates that the underlying problems, assuming that the scientific content is deserving of publication, are not only due to language but also cultural, infrastructure and logistics problems. Each of these problem areas is dealt with in detail in this intervention: 1) knowledge of grammar without knowing the history of a word's general, idiomatic and scientific use, 2) the loss of face in asking for help, 3) the inability to distinguish between pedagogical and commercial approaches to translations, and 4) the lack of having E-Preprint facilities all weigh against the non-English-speaking laboratory scientist when writing up results for publication in the serious peer-reviewed journal edited in English.
Key words: dichronicity, loss-of-face, pre-editing, E-Preprint
Between the typical research and the editor of an international journal there exists established protocols for submitting the results of an investigation which in essence may be summed as: follow the journal's imposed model, choose correctly the type of article allowed (research article, short communication, technical report as well as the letter to the editor) and use the English language. However, the non-native English-speaking scientist (NNES) has the added responsibilty to convince the editor and peer reviewer that his/her English usage in the manuscript (MS) is of sufficient quality that the MS merits publication even though it comes from an emerging country. Xenophobia is still a reality in the world of science! (1)
The search for a translator of the MS can oblige the researcher to invest a great deal of time which may only lead to failure in getting published in spite of many journals insisting that one of the 2,000-member Council of Biology Editors revise the MS before being sent (but who may not be available in the researcher's country).
To have the latest and most sophisticated equipment installed and not have a full-time translator-pre-editor (TPE) (2) on the laboratory's payroll will be the most quixotic of acts the chair of the department or the director of the biomedical center could fall into (assuming there is knowledge of what the TPE does). Also, not to use the help of colleagues in English-speaking countries has to have a reason, and that reason is usually due to the "loss-of-face syndrome," as it will be called here.
E-Preprint archive service not existing in biomedicine will also have to be explained in any writing up of its contemporary history. This creation of Paul Ginsparg (3) has produced tremendous progress in physics and mathematics as well as computational linguistics since 1991 but no one has even attemped its creation as far as my Web searches have determined.
FOUR COUNTERFORCES IN PUBLISHING RESEARCH
The Language Problem
The researcher living in what is euphemistically called today the Emerging World (that is, the non-G8, non-European countries), whose native language is not English and does not command its grammar and spelling well enough to publish his/her results, needs help. In the best of all worlds there will be a way to overcome this disadvantage (see figure 1 and note).
An article and its accompanying letter, then, should be written with regal sway if it is to get to the editor and then to the peer reviewer.
The language problem goes beyond grammar and includes the confusion in the belief that what appears in the literature must be correct. If NESs and peer reviewers were infallible this believe would make sense. However, there are errors--real errors--in spelling, in rare usages that sneak in the back door and are picked up by NNESs. As NNESs are under more scrutiny than the NES they are detected more easily when employed (see table 1).
While historical (diachronic) usage gives the "root" meaning to a term, the contemporary (synchronic) usage is what guides writing even when it is of doubtful use. For this reason the NNES must learn not only to be on the lookout for misuages of a term but must learn the historical root meaning as well (see example 3 above in table 1).
The Translation Problem
Typically, the NNES looks for a translator and pays what the market will bear. There are on-line services today that even accept VISA credit cards! Graduate students and returning postdocs are included in the list of obliging translators but these are no better than the commercial translator due to the fact they are not experts in language; rather, just scientists who speak better English now than before they went abroad.
Since the early 1980s John Swales (4) has been looking for the answer to this problem. Swales still believes (5) that if NNES read and read the needed perfection in writing will come.
Disbelieving in the Swales/Bowers method, I developed a pedagogical methodology that uses a real MS in a one-on-one, once-a-week, hourly session for 18+ weeks to work up the MS into publishable form which was designated as the translator-pre-editor (TPE) methodology (6).
Sometimes without a single error an MS will be given a low priority just because of its sender's return address some scholars of international scientific communication have pointed out. Kela Ruuskanen (7) agrees with Benitez-Bribiesca (8) that the "return-address syndrome" even weighs heavily on the European NNES (although I have not been able to document real cases of it) as well as the Latin American NNES (which does occur frequently with our scientists at AUNL and has been documented personally).
The TPE, as table 2 indicates, is the key for a successful biomedical center in a NNES country.
The pedagogy of the TPE consists of explaining the rules and history as well as contemporary usage of terms to the NNES. The proof of the pedagogical intervention in pre-editing is to see the term(s) used correctly in the next manuscript.
The TPE does not want the NNES as a permanent client as would a commercial translator. If such did occur it woud be tantamount to defeat!
The "Loss-of-Face" Problem
Apisak Pupipat's recent doctoral dissertation (see table 3) which includes long interviews with Thai scientists and editors documents how the loss of face affects the production of science in Thailand. Without a doubt, the same occurs in all places where the cultural imperative of work is based on avoidance mechanisms, be it in Asia or not.
A survey of researchers and their communication tools of the third most important biomedical center (1996 Citation Report by M.J. Yacaman, then Subsecretary of Investigation of the Secretariat of Public Education for Mexico), the College of Medicine of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon (AUNL) in Monterrey, Mexico (the 13th most important economy in the world) should give us an idea of their stance vis a vis Thai scientists. And should tell us about the sad state-of-the-art in less favorable emerging countries.
Mexican scientists have been connected to Internet since 1993 (three years behind schedule and 10 years behind most NES biomedical scientists). Table 4 indicates that in 1997 AUNL biomedical scientists did not use their tools as hoped. Why? Because of the loss-of-face syndrome! Ninety percent of the researchers were not writing their NES colleagues because of fear of making errors and were not subscribed to university listservers or electronic journal servers for the same reason.
The Feedback Problem
The Internet tools available to medical and biomedical researchers run from sequence to protein libraries, Medline, news and articles from the most respected journals; however, the most important, from the NNES's point of view, is missing--an E-Print archive service such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory site for physics-mathematics and computational linguistics since 1991 and 1994, respectively. Articles "looking for a journal" and papers to be read at congresses are put up on a server so the whole community of the specializtion subscribed to the service can download, read and send the investigator and his/her coworkers comments on how to make the paper/article better. This is perfect, real world feedback.
That this E-Preprint/E-Print/E-Postprint archive is not available is one of the great mysteries of biomedicine that even a Stevan Harnad "after dinner talk" would have trouble explaining. The hundreds of thousands of homepages that do deal with disease and discussion are mostly of the "ask-your-physican" genre where threads go on and on with anecdotal comments from patients or family members and acquaintances. This Web graffiti is not even close to the E-Print quality that LANL's Paul Ginsparg and Harvard's Stuart Shieber created for their communities at
Wisconsin's College of Medicine had, perhaps, the first clinician-clinician dialogue files via telnet and FTP in the late 1980s but were not and have not been especially biomedicine friendly.
A free-access biomedical E-Preprint archive service (with postings in PostScript, TeX, LaTex, questionable HTML (9) languages or old-fashioned ASCII) makes sense if and only if there is true good-heartedness in helping a colleague (be s/he from a G-8 or an emerging country) to get that required feedback to straighten out a badly worded phrase, a complicated procedure made easier, a bad statistical tool employed or a calculation made intelligent or more clear. To raise the question of plagiarism is to raise a straw-man case as plagiarism takes place in the printed literature as well. The "helping-others-cross-the-finish-line-first" is another boogey-man argument used to not think about E-Preprint archives. The truth is, posting research on a E-Preprint guarantees that the line of research is not robbed. An archive is, as the name indicates, a valid historical record.
There is no valid argument that can be used to explain why a biomedical E-Preprint archive service does not exist except to say that biomedicine has not yet had a Paul Ginsparg or a Stuart Shieber who can convince a funding agency and a site with a very-large-capacity server to bring it to birth. Medical physics at LANL is the only exception to the above.
A fulltime TPE teaching researchers the writing up of MSs for submission to NES edited journals at a biomedical center with researchers subscribed to an E-Preprint archive service would, no doubt, increase the number of successfully published researchers from the emerging country group (see Figure 1 above).
This challenge for the immediate future could be partially met by G-8 scientists working with emerging country scientists if G-8 research laboratories would "adopt" an emerging country laboratory until the E-Preprint archive server is up and running. That it has not occurred may be due only to a misplaced and misguided spirit of competition in science.
RMCB wishes to thank Mexico's Secretariat of Public Education for grant number 97/98-2317 which partially defrayed expenses for this research and to Jemil Marcos for this HTML version.
1. Chandler-Burns, RM Global communication and bias in biomedical research 4th Internet World Congress on Biomedical Research available at:
2. Chandler-Burns, RM English as the international language of research: confirmation of Swales' findings in RELC(1985):16:1 EMPN(1987):4:1:54-55; also cf. The Value of Editing vs. Research Linguist(1996):7:627:1 ISSN 1068-4875). See URL at:
- http://linguistlist.org/ [search April week 5:7.627]
3. Ginparg's role is discussed in Stevan Harnad's "after dinner talk" at URL:
4. Swales, J English as the international language of research RELC(1985):16: 1:1-17
5. Swales' private E-mail message to Roy Bowers published on the English for Science and Technology List from La Paz, B.C., Mexico when Bowers was at the Northwest Biology Center Laboratories in 1994 (see 1994 archive at:
- email@example.com (est-l/archives for 1994)
6.See my paper at :
or my Orlando paper at :
7. Ruuskanen, DDK Re: The value of editing vs. research Linguist(1996):7: 631:1-2 (ISSN 1068-4875). See URL at:
- http://linguistlist.org/ [search April week 5: 7.631] and
8. Benitez-Bribiesca, L [cited in WW Gibbs, Lost science in the third world Scientific American(1995):273:2:76-83]
9. Grant, MC Thoughts on scientific HTML documents. URL at:
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