We must end linguistic discrimination in academic publishing

Publishers need to examine their biases and universities their support mechanisms, say Avi Staiman, Marnie Jo Petray and Gaillynn Clements

February 7, 2022
A wastepaper basket illustrating an opinion article about discrimination against non-native English speakers in journal publication
Source: iStock

It has been 10 years since the American writer Rosina Lippi-Green made her bold claim that language bias stands as “the last back door to discrimination”.

Her statement, made in her 2011 book English with an Accent, sums up her extensive research on language bias and its influence on societal power relations. And, as two professors who research socio-linguistic justice and the CEO of an authors’ editing service, we can confirm from our unique vantage point that her words still ring true.

Scholars often seek the help of editing services after being told by journals that their research is not coherent or needs to be edited by a native English speaker. But such rejections are not always well considered. When one of our clients responded to one such comment that he had already had his entire manuscript edited (at no small cost!), the publisher backtracked, admitting that the message he received was simply a template it sent to all scholars with institutional affiliation outside the anglophone world. There was no prior review of the manuscript’s language quality.

No wonder, then, that studies confirm the work of EAL (English as an additional language) scholars is rejected at a higher rate than that of their native-speaking colleagues. With the number of submissions doubling in some fields during the pandemic, it is not surprising that journal editors feel overwhelmed and are looking for a means to desk-reject as many submissions as possible. But such blanket, presumptuous dismissal of manuscripts from non-anglophone countries is deeply unjust.

Equally, the bias can work both ways. Another of our clients took issue with the fact that their article was being edited by a woman named Irina, assuming that someone with a Russian name couldn’t be a native English speaker. In fact, Irina is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia University and a brilliant editor.

With these case studies in mind, we set out to better understand the specific obstacles EAL scholars face when they try to publish their research. An astounding 86 per cent of respondents to our survey reported feeling disadvantaged when competing against native-English-speaking academics. Our research demonstrates that while EAL scholars are under significant pressure to publish in English, they are not provided with the necessary resources to bring their papers to publication.

To compound this issue, journal editors are not properly trained to address or assist such scholars, either. And many international scholars have little or no funding to access third-party editing services. Hence, their research contributions may never see the light of day. The global body of published research becomes impoverished and skewed towards native-English-speaking academics. And this, in turn, further limits the voices of non-anglophone scholars and the diversification of our shared knowledge.

Based on the data from our report, on top of decades of research and personal experience that reflect our findings, we recommend a re-evaluation of the current submission and review process for EAL authors.

First, in the initial review process, editorial judgements should be based primarily on the content of the manuscript rather than its linguistic expression. Secondly, universities around the world should increase the funding they offer to help their academics access the resources they need to successfully publish. And, thirdly, publishers and journals themselves should offer EAL scholars affordable author services. This seems only fair if they require linguistic expression to be in standard English.

One journal’s interesting experiment could be adopted more widely. It involves a mentoring programme aimed at helping writers from outside the anglophone context to better understand the review and publishing process. The programme also provides an opportunity for journal editors and reviewers to reconsider their possible assumptions and biases in approaching the scholarship of EAL writers.

While the reforms proposed above may seem ambitious, they are well within our reach. Moreover, they are vitally important. By becoming more sensitive to the limitations faced by some EAL authors, we can boost inclusiveness and enrich the body of research at the same time.

Avi Staiman is the founder and CEO of Academic Language Experts and co-host of the New Books Network Scholarly Communication podcast. Marnie Jo Petray is associate professor in modern languages and cultures at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. Gaillynn D. Clements is visiting assistant professor in linguistics at Duke University. She is co-editor, with Marnie Jo Petray, of Linguistic Discrimination in US Higher Education (Routledge, 2021).

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