Getting the writing right

December 5, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of travelling to Finland to give a course on “English for academic research”. This proved to be a stimulating and, in some respects, surprising experience for several reasons.

Finns have a reputation for good English skills, and indeed, they all spoke well and their emails were fine too. But the demands of academic English are rather different.

In the same way that one encounters “Denglish” in Germany and “Frenglish” in France, there is “Finglish” in Finland. This is inevitable, but it is important that these language barriers do not prevent good work from reaching an international audience.

This was the first time that I had given such a course to a group comprising only professors and lecturers. In Germany, I have always addressed doctoral students, which seems to reveal something about international differences in research processes and the need to publish. Indeed, the Finns wanted only to go through their own papers, and declined my offer of trial conference presentations or more general exercises. “The only thing that counts here is to get published,” was the unanimous declaration. I was informed that giving good conference presentations would be nice, but it does not further their careers.

However, there were some other surprises in store. Particularly amazing was the fact that some of these papers had (allegedly) already been edited, although I would not have known, had I not been told.

These articles had been sent off to one of the many online services that all too often promise significantly more than they deliver. Without exception, these papers had been totally inadequately edited, containing some real English errors. More problematically, they contained style and idiom that was either simply poor, or inappropriate in academic writing.

What particularly shocked me is that one Finnish professor told me he had paid the top rate for a “premium editing” of his paper. That is, this online service had charged more than usual for having an “expert” in the area ensure that the use of English was truly optimal. It was painfully obvious that this was not the case.

In the second sentence, I read that “many researchers have strongly proposed” conducting such investigations and later on, that “customer’s tasks and activities are essential to understand”, because “they lead to experiences and value”. Methodologically speaking, a previous study was “a contrast to a practices perspective” and a more recent project “found applying a practice perspective five different ideal types of co-creation”.

Furthermore, some sentences were so academically unclear that they could not be resolved without communicating with the author. Yet, the articles had simply been uploaded in Finland, downloaded goodness knows where and then downloaded again in the allegedly edited form. However, in many cases, an article cannot be edited to a satisfactory level without bilateral communication, especially when it was written by a non-native speaker.

In summary, my many years of academic editing have revealed that writing academic English is a major challenge for all non-native speakers, albeit to differing degrees. Such courses are thus a useful means of conveying what goes wrong and how to get it right, as well as identifying who can really help.

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Reader's comments (1)

Here, I do not agree with Brian Bloch's conclusion that "writing academic English is a major challenge for all non-native speakers....". Instead, I argue that there are some key gatekeepers (e.g. journal editors, publishing houses, etc) who make academic writing a challenge for non-native academics. I believe and have observed that many non-native academics write much better than native English speaking academics. As Bloch rightly puts, "the demands of academic English are rather different". I cannot help but totally agree with him on this matter; however, the demands of academic English apply to native English academics as much as they do to non-native academics. Academic English is a different mode of writing, and it demands a large amount of instruction and training on the part of the academics regardless of whether they are native or non-native English speakers. But, it is true that native English academics are linguistically advantaged as they work with a language they acquired, yet that does not mean or ensure that their academic writing would be perfect, and they would not need any help. In academia, it is almost impossible not to get involved in editing, revising, or modifying what researchers have written on their earlier drafts. This is yet shown and conveyed as if it was a unique problem that only non-native academics face and have to cope with. This is far from the reality, though. I would ask what is meant by academic English, and whose English is alluded to, and counted as the right model while voicing the term' academic English'. There seems to be a lack of statement regarding the kind of English required in academic English, but academic practices indicate that academics particularly non-native ones feel obliged to resort to some ways like getting help from online editing services, proofread their papers by native people, and so on. These practices speak for themselves implying that the English they struggle to conform to is that of native speakers. At this juncture, I cannot help but ask what should be the criteria for good academic writing. Should be a kind of English which can be understood by a large international audience, or should it be one in a manner that conforms to academic English of native speakers, which is free from 'real English errors'. What about creativity? What about non-native researchers' own linguistic resources, and their creatively generated non-native expressions, which are intelligible? As far as I am concerned, academic writing should be the kind of writing that can be understood internationally not only by native academic researchers but all researchers. The main responsibility in this regard falls to the journals and publishing houses. I would like to end this comment by exemplifying how a journal clearly states its language guidelines for the authors in line with the intelligibility focus: Scholarly articles published in JELF will usually be about 8,000 words long, including references. Authors should follow theDe Gruyter Mouton style sheet but with one change: While the standard style sheet stipulates, under 'Special attention', that authors should have their "contribution carefully checked by a native speaker", the editors of JELF simply expect authors to submit manuscripts written in an English which is intelligible to a wide international academic audience, but it need not conform to native English norms. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca (Submission of manuscripts, Instructions for authors).

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