Linguistic Bias in Scientific Publishing

Mar 19, 2023 | How-To, Idea, Uncategorized

How expert academic editing can help to level the field

Bias is a notorious problem in academic publishing. It disturbs and distorts processes that are designed to be objective, like peer review. Scholars have, for decades, charted the presence of bias and worried about its effects both on the integrity of publishing and on their careers.

Peer review in academic publishing is a process where experts are invited to appraise their colleagues’ work. The fact that a publication has been assessed by people in the discipline lends credibility to the research. It helps others in the scientific community – as well as policymakers and those working in industry – to have confidence in the rigour behind the work they’re reading. Academic publishers use peer review primarily to evaluate articles submitted by authors. It can, on occasion, also be used in other contexts. Universities sometimes peer review job applications, for instance. Funding bodies can also use a form of peer review to assess funding applications. Even conference speakers might be chosen by a peer-review process. To find bias in this process, then, is a serious matter.

Established bias in academic publishing

The journal Behavioral Ecology introduced double-blind peer reviews in 2001. A study seven years later found that, since the measure was introduced, there had been a small but statistically significant increase in the number of papers first-authored by women. Double-blind reviewing hides an author’s identity from the reviewer and vice versa, and it would seem that any review process doing less than this includes at least some bias.

Gender bias is evident elsewhere in the publishing process, too. A Nature article from 2017 points out that journals invite fewer women to be peer reviewers. This is important because being a peer reviewer can help an academic build writing skills and expertise. Being a peer reviewer can also help establish networks with peers, editors and other field leaders – important in the early years of an academic career. The lack of professional exposure for women in this area compounds over time. Women are, for instance, rarely appointed to prestigious editorial positions. And if women are less involved in directing scientific publishing, it becomes more difficult, in turn, to shape the culture of science or to help shape how disciplines develop.

Evidence of linguistic bias in peer review

Publishing in languages other than English also suffers. Scientific research and academic exchange are dominated by English. The high-impact, international journals are published in that language. This is particularly the case for the natural sciences. Measuring the quality of a piece of work under review is difficult, but one recent paper has found concrete evidence of linguistic bias. A group of scholars were asked, as part of a randomised controlled study, to judge the scientific quality of a sample of abstracts. Each abstract had identical content, and was written up in two versions. One was submitted in international academic English, while the other was not (although it was still comprehensible). Scholars, the study found, rate abstracts written in international academic English higher than those written in other styles, even when the scientific content is identical. The researchers concluded that reviewers perceived non-Anglophone scholarship to be of lower quality.

The study claims to be the first experimental evidence for linguistic bias in academic publishing. And the dynamics feel like gender bias. But, unlike gender bias, judgements of language fluency are subjective. Peer reviewers have no particular training in using English; international academic English is simply language that conforms to what a reviewer perceives is ‘good’ or ‘native-like’ English. This kind of writing isn’t necessarily ‘good writing’. It just reflects what editors and reviewers are used to academics producing.

Linguistic bias and scholarship

A 2011 paper reported how academics in Hong Kong felt hampered by a ‘less rich vocabulary’. They also complained that they had ‘less facility in expression’. That is, they felt that they had a problem with syntax, as well as with choosing the right words to convey their meaning accurately. Writers whose second language is English might, for instance, inappropriately qualify their claims or present an argument less cogently. Literature produced by non-Anglophone scholars, then, is less likely to be published, creating an additional burden on the world’s non-English-speaking scholars and increasing the likelihood that their submissions will be rejected.

Rejection might fuel a sense of inadequacy, and lead non-Anglophone scholars to shy away from publishing their work in English. The knock-on effect of this might be that they take longer to get published, longer to search for and review sources, and longer to write up their work. Non-Anglophone scholars might, essentially, find themselves in a position similar to that of women, where they are eligible for and exposed to fewer opportunities for career advancement. Research suggests that non-Anglophone speakers might even perceive themselves as being disadvantaged in terms of publications, even when they aren’t.

Overcoming negative perceptions with academic editing

There are no easy solutions. If university departments funded professional academic editing, it might go some way to addressing the bias in peer review. It’s a solution already common in non-Anglophone countries, where professional editing helps scientists to make a more positive first impression. Editors work line by line. They adjust and elevate the register and style of a manuscript to be more in-line with what peer reviewers and journal editors expect. It takes a skilled academic editor to get behind any language problems and flag issues with argument, structure, and so on, before the content is sent for peer review.

Non-Anglophone scholars often find it daunting to submit papers to English-language journals. Publication in English nevertheless plays an important part in a scientist’s early career. Professional editing can help to level the playing field (although it clearly has to be provided at an institutional level or through project funding, or another serious form of bias is introduced, disadvantaging those who don’t have ready wealth to spend on editing). Ultimately, non-Anglophone scholars can use professional editing services to make them more competitive in the world of scientific publishing.