Linguistic bias in publishing is a 'myth'

Pervasive claims that non-native speakers of English are unfairly discriminated against by publishers are rebutted by linguistics expert

March 24, 2016
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Academics have claimed that non-native English speakers are unfairly penalised

“Linguistic bias” against academics who use English as their second language is a “myth” used to explain why substandard research is not published in top-ranked journals, a study claims.

Scholars working in non-anglophone countries have long complained that many papers submitted to academic journals are rejected due to little more than their authors’ less-than-perfect use of English, according to the study by Ken Hyland, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Hong Kong.

Such “discrimination” against non-native English speakers is widely accepted as the norm across the world, leading to claims that higher education’s publication system – and university rankings which rely on such data – are rigged in favour of English-speaking academics and institutions, explains Professor Hyland, director of Hong Kong’s Centre for Applied English Studies.

But there is “little evidence to support the idea that there is a widespread and systematic bias against writers whose first language is not English”, says Professor Hyland in a paper titled “Academic publishing and the myth of linguistic injustice”, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Second Language Writing.

While the “bluntness” of some “brutal” comments by academic reviewers “may lead EAL [English as an additional language] writers to believe that language has played a decisive role in the rejection of their contribution”, this is unlikely to be the case, he says.

“Interviews with editors and studies of reviewers’ comments…tend to find no evidence to support claims of prejudicial treatment or undue attention to language in editorial decisions,” he writes.

Language problems may actually point to more fundamental issues with the research caused by the disadvantages of “physical, scholarly and financial isolation” or may be simply due to a lack of awareness over the crucial discipline of writing for academic papers, Professor Hyland adds.

In fact, there were three times as many articles published in high-impact journals by academics with English as an additional language in 2011 compared with 2000, based on an analysis of journal papers in top-ranked publications in six subject areas, he says.

The “pervasive” idea that English speakers enjoyed an innate advantage over non-native English speakers was not only wrong, but "offensive to the many reviewers, editors and mentors who seek to support non-anglophone authors in getting published”, as well as “damaging” and “discouraging” to academics as it “tells them to look for prejudice rather than revision”.

The “pervasive view which asserts that EAL scholars are disadvantaged in the cut-throat competitive world of academic publishing by virtue of their status as second language writers…has gained the privileged position of an unchallenged orthodoxy," argues Professor Hyland.

“Many EAL novice writers automatically invoke the stereotype of ‘non-native speaker' when finding themselves vulnerable in the review process…[but it is a] framing largely based on unexamined assumptions and a lack of research into anglophone practices,” he adds.

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