Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Editing for World Peace

Every so often (4-8 times/year), scientists at a university in a non-English-speaking country will ask me to edit the English in a manuscript that they either hope to submit for review or that has been reviewed and criticized for its poor English. I am happy to help because, in theory, this simple assistance can have a positive impact on someone’s career because publication in international journals may be essential for advancement.

As an editor/reviewer, I have struggled to understand the meaning of some manuscripts written by non-native English speakers, so I think it's a good thing for authors to seek technical editing assistance prior to submission. Furthermore, on a personal level, I benefit from the fact that the international literature is in my native language, and on a cosmic level I think that science as a whole will be the better owing to participation by more scientists, so it makes sense for me to do this simple thing to help.

Some of my colleagues think I should refuse to do this editing, as it encourages people to think of me as a glorified clerical worker. That is, if the manuscript authors really respected me as a Scientist, they wouldn't ask me to edit their manuscripts, and therefore the requests are sexist. I don’t agree with that opinion, but there is an element of truth to it. Some of those who ask me for help have been rather patronizing over the years, are not necessarily very gracious, and tend to respond to my efforts by asking me to do more for them (e.g., doing literature searches for them).

Most of these editing requests come from scientists who are not at well-equipped research institutions, and who are already facing major challenges to do the research and publish the results. At the risk of sounding patronizing myself, I am sympathetic to how difficult it must be to do research at the level required for publication in international journals at an institution that lacks major research facilities. Add to that the challenge for some of communicating in a foreign language, and there's the basis for my philosophy re. agreeing to these technical editing requests. If I can help in some way, shouldn’t I do so? Or am I perpetuating a stereotype about women as assistants who can be asked to do low-level tasks?

In this post, I am discussing the issue of technical editing of manuscripts on which I am not a coauthor, i.e. for scientists who are not research collaborators. I have international colleagues with whom I collaborate on research projects, and that is an entirely different situation.

Some of these scientists ask me to comment on both the writing and the science, but recently I got a couple of requests asking me to confine my comments to the writing. I thought that was kind of odd, but I wondered if the scientists were trying to be polite and not take up more of my time than necessary. I should say that I have never met some of these scientists, and others I don’t know well, so I figure I might as well just help them rather than figure out the motivation for this request.

In one such case I had no trouble complying with the request to confine my comments to the writing. The manuscript topic wasn’t particularly close to my field of expertise, and I zipped through it, fixing the writing. In another case, however, I couldn’t help but comment on some errors, in addition to fixing the writing. I felt that the manuscript was publishable if these errors were fixed, and not publishable without the corrections. The author wrote back to say (essentially): “Thanks for your comments on the science but I am going to ignore them all.” The manuscript was rejected, and I am curious to see what the author decides to do next.

In fact, rejection is a common fate for quite a few of these manuscripts. I said above that correcting the writing in a manuscript can, in theory, have an impact. The impact is theoretical unless the manuscript is published. In some cases there is nothing that I can do to save these manuscripts, however excellent my subject-verb agreement. If the topic is somewhere close to my research expertise, I can, in some cases, help with the content. For example, last year I edited a manuscript that clearly needed data that were easy for me to acquire but impossible for the author, owing to lack of facilities in his country; it took me only a few hours to get the data for him.

If the topic is further removed and there is no reasonable way I can help make a manuscript publishable, my editing efforts are pointless. Even so, I can’t imagine declining to help even when I’m fairly certain of the fate of the manuscript.

There is one particular scientist, whom I have never met, who requests more of my time than all the others combined. He typically includes in his request a casual mention of the fact that it is my responsibility as a scientist in a rich country to help poor, struggling scientists such as him, and that should I decline to help him, my selfish actions would seriously erode tenuous relationships between our two countries and besmirch the pure ideals of scientific collaboration.

I would prefer a simple “Will you please help me with X?”, but despite his obnoxious and manipulative attempt to extract my assistance, this colleague is right that I do have some responsibility to help. But how far can I / should I go with my help? My ability to work with international scientists (other than my collaborators) is constrained by time, funding, and the limits of my expertise. Even so, I figure that the least I can /should do is help edit some manuscripts, with an occasional foray into more substantial assistance.

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have always envisioned myself doing what you are doing, one day, when i am a somebody.
Part of that comes from having reviewed so many illwritten manuscripts that i would just love to fix them for the greater good of mankind. But that last "colleague" you're describing? I'd forward him to a professional editing company, he can just pay for the services provided.

mentaer said...

my 2cents on the speciifc "scientist": either i would not answer him or answer him very delayed and tell him that I have other responsibilities. I usually try to help as well in terms of looking for electronic-papers and sending them and so on (beeing a non-english speaker, no one would ask me for editing ;) -- but I would clearly reject work, such as literature research.

A bit similar is actually my work for a forum/mail list of a subject specific software (i.e. not releated to research). A couple of times we have
a) requests for help, where the persons wants to see a step-by-step help to a solution to their taks (given by uni instructors?), so that one wonders if these people are trained to "think" ,
b) questions/email, that are written in street language/chat or text message style.

How to deal with these two issues?
in case of a)
I have started now to provide only entry points and to refer to the limited time (we basically all receive no benefits, may be with the exception of being known to the users in general)
for case b)
I simply tell the people first that our "forum etiquette" requires to pose questions in the best english "available" (It is quite interesting that people from certain regions always excuse for their bad english, when writing the first time, while others...)

.. ok this post may be a bit offtopic now but I hope it shows similar problems.

labrat said...

"The impact is theoretical unless the manuscript is published."

I think you are underestimating the good you're doing. You are providing these researchers with a topical example of good writing that might help make them better writers themselves and get future manuscripts published even if the one you edited didn't make the cut!

Is this kind of editing the sort of task you could share with your grad students (with the author's permission)? You're not bound by the kind of confidentiality as editors and reviewers, and it seems a reasonable way to share the load a little bit - especially when it comes to Dr Guilt Tripper.

blop said...

I recently had a look at prices for professional proofreading of manuscripts (just to budget correctly a grant proposal). It is less than $100. So nothing compared to the publication fees we pay in most journals.
Hence, in your case, I wouldn't hesitate to have loooong delays to answer patronizing scientists and/or give them the address of such companies.

PhysioProf said...

Wow! Lots to think about in this good post!

(1) Maybe they began to seek you out because they could tell you are a fucking awesome writer. And now you have a reputation as someone who is willing to help.

(2) You are a very generous person, and you have tenure. I hope any non-tenured faculty reading this realize that this is absolutely not the kind of thing that junior faculty can afford to spend any time on whatsoever. Research, teach, and service in ways that you will get credit for are the only things you should be spending time on until you have tenure.

(3) I am going to disagree with your policy of not "triaging" manuscripts that are hopeless, and will clearly never be accepted by an English-language journal.

There is a journal in my subfield whose editor sends out for review papers from authors in scientifically disadvantaged countries that would not get past his desk if they were from authors in the scientific first-world. He does this because he wants to "help" these authors, which is admirable.

These papers always get rejected, and rightfully so. This is a waste of the time of the authors, the reviewers, and the editors. It diverts effort away from manuscripts that have a chance, and slows down the authors in getting their papers published. They should be submitting to somewhere there is some hope of accepting their work.

By agreeing to help with manuscripts that simply are never going to be published in the English-language peer-reviewed literature, you are wasting the authors time, your time, and the time of reviewers and editors at the English journals that are going to receive these papers.

By politely refusing and explaining why, you will save everyone a lot of wasted effort, and the authors can submit their paper to a journal of their native language right away.

planetologist said...

Being a non-native speaker myself, I find the very idea to ask somebody, whom I have not actually ever met, to edit my paper...very strange. I am always very grateful for help, but I'm fully aware of how limited everyone's time in science business really is. So I am always aware that this is a huge favour I ask for.

And about this second person he/she is a jerk - and a very rude one at that. I mean what kind of preposterous attitude is that? Ignore it. You really have better things to do than let such an impolite ungrateful idiot steal your precious time. (Hmm, was this correct english? ;-)

Mister Troll said...

I think it's very admirable of you to volunteer to help edit.

When I review manuscripts by non-English speakers, I am always a) impressed by how difficult it must be to publish in a foreign language (I feel I would be far too faint-hearted to attempt it!), and b) dismayed by the incomprehensibility of portions of the manuscript.

I have always tried to be very helpful, and my reviews include pretty thorough corrections of language. I hope it has been appreciated, but obviously have no way of knowing.

SC said...

I agree with your feelings on the benefits that this could provide. If I had time myself (I don't) it is a service task I'd like to help with, BUT, not if I get take advantage of to put in lots of time that is not appreciated, not if I'm giving disproportionate help to the person who just happens to have heard of me and is getting all demanding and guilt-trippy on me, and not if my colleagues aren't putting in some effort with this too.

What I think we need here is some "central global help with tech writing" service. This could regulate everything to everyone's satisfaction:

(a) The English-speaking scientist could say (e.g.) "Give me no more than 3 papers a year"

(b) the software could prioritise the incoming requests for distribution to willing academics so that any needy demanding types don't get priority just because they submitted many more requests

(c) submitters can say don't send my paper to this editor, I got mean comments from him/her last time

(d) editors can say don't give me submissions from X, last time I gave comments to X I spent hours on it and it was all ignored

(e) editors can list it officially as a service on their record, so they get some kind of a positive payback from it!


So any direct requests you get you can always deflect because you can send them to the service. And you can ensure that you are doing your bit of service by subscribing to it.

Does such a thing exist?

Anonymous said...

I think you should refuse to do this work. Don't you have papers of your own to write? There are people who are paid to do this and the authors should be paying them, instead of expecting you to do it for free.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't do the editing under any circumstances. This is not an effective use of your time. If the science is good, the work will get published anyway. If the journal editors really care about the language, let them do the editing.

ScienceWoman said...

While I admire your generosity, this is not something I would ever do. There are lots of technical editing services out there that are specifically geared for non-native-English-speaking authors trying to publish in English. It's my understanding that the costs are reasonable, and that sometimes the authors university will have a contract with a particular company.

Furthermore, I know several people who work for such editing services. They generally have graduate degrees in the sciences but have left the academic world by choice or by force. Editing is a flexible part-time option for them that allows them to retain some contact with the world of science. I think it's a great example of how scientific careers can be made to fit people's lives and not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your colleagues who think you should refuse, at least beyond the first request from any person. Yes, I think you are perpetuating the stereotype.

Doing good research at ill-equipped institutions is obviously a very serious hurdle. But you're not contributing research equipment or expertise; you're contributing English skills. English skills can be learned with the right resources. As harsh as it sounds, I think a used copy of Strunk and White is a better response than repeatedly serving as an unpaid editor.

In particular, Dr Guilt Tripper is a jerk. Dump him.

On the other hand, for requests for comments on science, I think you're spot on! Now you're giving your colleagues access to a resource they can't get any other way: your scientific expertise!

bsci said...

My main criticism here are towards your colleagues who think this encourages people to think of you as a glorified clerical worker. Do they get these requests and reject them? Do you offer to pass some of these requests onto them? If you are the only person willing to do this, then their lack of help is what makes you a glorified clerical worker.

As for Physioprofs comments about how working on clearly bad papers wastes time, I'm curious how this compares to other forms of mentorship. Reading bad work and writing a critique with suggestions is extremely beneficial to scientists. For someone in a poor country with few colleagues to critique work, this is one of the few chances they get for this type of mentorship. Perhaps there is a more efficient way to give this mentorship besides through the peer review process, but peer review exists and is cheaper than expecting people to regularly fly to far away conferences.

Anonymous said...

Journal editors do not have time to correct for English grammar, they and journal reviewers have to request rewrites.

I am sympathetic to scientists trying to do good work in poorer work environments, and the resentment that I would probably feel if I were disadvantaged relative to language, when one language dominates. If my background were from the culture, I'd probably feel a need to help. But the help could get spread around: instead of editing these all yourself, can you recruit others of similar language/cultural background? work with the subfield scientific society to assist foreign writers? You might do more good in the long run. Sounds like some of these scientists may be more senior folks who resent having to grovel to a more junior (and female) person for help.

I sure hope you get in the acknowledgements! And add it to your CV under 'service'.

Ambitwistor said...

You may feel you have some responsibility to help international scientists in general, but you certainly have no responsibility to help every particular international scientist who comes to you. Especially an obnoxious and manipulative one.

Academic said...

I think that the fee for service editors seem like an entirely reasonable solution for Dr. Arm-Twister.

Female Science Professor said...

I'm not interested in playing games, even with obnoxious people. I can do a technical edit in about an hour, in extreme cases a couple of hours. For those concerned about how I spend my time, fear not -- my research productivity is not affected by spending an hour here and there.

Re. hiring a professional editing service: $100 (or so) would be a large sum of money for some of these scientists. If they happen to have $100 to spend on research-related activities, I can see why they would not want to spend it on technical editing.

Helen said...

I've done some of the same sort of editing myself, and while I don't mind at all in the abstract, like you, I have time constraints.

With that last person you mentioned, I'd tell him that I have other requests for the same help, and he has already received his share of the time I have to spend on such requests and forward him contact info for a couple of professional editors.

Kim said...

For example, last year I edited a manuscript that clearly needed data that were easy for me to acquire but impossible for the author, owing to lack of facilities in his country; it took me only a few hours to get the data for him.

I hope you were made a co-author for that level of help - in my field, people are regularly made co-authors for much less work than that.

Helen said...

Regarding your playing games comment -- I agree.

But what are you really trying to accomplish? Pick whatever you want that to be, and then go with it.

My thought would be to spread the love -- fussy manipulator guy has had his share, so give your time to those who haven't had that kind of help yet. But it really comes down to what you want to do.

Anonymous said...

I've never gotten a request from someone that I didn't know in some capacity to help edit a non-English manuscript. I have received requests from people I met only briefly (at a conference), but I was still happy to help edit their papers. I agree that helping them with editing feels like the right thing to do, doesn't take an inordinate amount of time, and furthers science.

I think the relationship-less requests are odd, and quite possibly falling into the trap of assuming you must be a technical advisor/secretary for the "real scientists" (ie the men) in your department. How else did they choose YOU?

Just like you can't help every street beggar, you can't help every scientist. Your efforts are probably better spent helping the international students within your own department. If all else fails, this is a great exercise for graduate students because they WILL have to edit non-native English writing in their future careers and it helps to have practice.

chemcat said...

Recently I wrote a paper with two collaborators (germans, but living in the US). I am also not a native speaker, but when I write papers (as opposed to quick blog entries ;-) ) I can write well; it takes me forever though. Anyhow, THEY corrected my English, putting in some constructions taken verbatim from German, such as putting the verb at the end....
Other than that, I often ask colleagues and/or friends to proofread, especially for VIP journals when style is an important component of getting the paper through. Occasionally, I pay (ie my unemployed friend, while my colleagues don't get paid, but they get to pick my brains on their science, so I consider it a pretty fair exchange).
I'm surprised that people ask for help, and give it for granted too. It's especially troubling that they don't want the science advice. I'd do some sort of triaging, ie if something is hopeless, tactfully say that if you were to review the paper you'd want to see x and y. If x and y are not available at their place, they can collaborate: many countries view collaborations with US/first word countries quite favorably, and the authors won't be penalized for that.
A lot of people have this weird idea that getting a paper published is a number game, and they send clearly flawed manuscripts out hoping to get through (or to limit the amount of work to what the reviewers ask). (that's true of some American authors too).

Alethea said...

I also do a lot of this, being one of very few native English speakers in my working environment.

Most people ask me very politely and try to make it as little work as possible. On the rare occasions when I've had to refuse for reasons of time or inclination, it doesn't upset the U.N.

I get out of it a sense of what is going on in my institution and provide an element of service willingly, rather than get forcibly named to certain committees and the like. Word gets around.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe this is a realistic expectation, especially when there are actual services available. If you are not involved with the science, then it isn't worth your time. The person who is guilt-tripping you obviously has no respect for you.

Helen said...

This is off-topic, so feel free to delete is as a comment, but if I remember right, you've served in faculty search processes, haven't you?

I was wondering if you had any insight/comments on what YFS posted about here: http://youngfemalescientist.blogspot.com/2008/04/accidental-information.html
I sadly find those scenarios believable; I was wondering how widespread you think they are.

usagibrian said...

Ah, one of my fondest memories from grad school was reviewing an international colleague's paper for some class or other. It was, actually, fairly well written--it was just not written correctly (and I wish I could remember what that sentence was; three readings to realize, yes, it is in fact absolutely correct grammatically and doesn't mean a thing). I read another of her papers later in the semester. None of the errors I'd noted in the first paper were repeated (few interesting new ones, but dang she had the stuff we discussed cold). I was impressed (I'm hopeless with language learning and her first was not even in the Indo-European family).

As to people who refuse to be corrected on the science, it happens in all editing. Write them off and waste no more time. As I tell the fiction class I sit in on each year, every writing conference, editors explain in panels how to get your work out of the slush pile and read (use correct MS format and you're literally three quarters of the way there) & every time some (unpublished) author tries to argue with them, not comprehending it's not a discussion.

Becky T said...

It is possible that your colleagues do not see you as a "clerical worker" and that your gender is unrelated to these requests. My father, an MSP at a major research institution, has been helping foreign colleagues write manuscripts in English for many years. I believe he even did it as an assistant prof. I always assumed that editing for grammar was a common activity (especially if you know the foreign researcher) and that most other professors would do the same. I am a little shocked by how many of your readers seem to think that helping other people is a waste of time. To me, sharing knowledge and helping others is half the reason to go into academic science, instead of industry.

Anonymous said...

Scientists who are junior and/or have limited access to resources: Yes.

Scientists who are high level and are looking for free work and to exploit: No.

Jerks: No.

Helping non-native speakers, especially from countries who can ill-afford professsional proofreading, is a duty that we should all occasionally undertake. It can also be enlightening in its own way about how we see language etc. But we don't 'owe' anyone anything, especially someone who is ungrateful, demanding, or lazy.

PhysioProf said...

Just like you can't help every street beggar, you can't help every scientist.

I love that analogy! That's how I feel every time I submit a grant to NIH, like a fucking street beggar.

"Spare a million for some soup and a coffee?"

Anonymous said...

Like you said with the guilt tripping person, you 'would prefer a simple “Will you please help me with X?”'.

The solution is simple. Tell them exactly that next time in the shortest amount of space possible. No more whining from them. Just a simple request. I doubt that they would refuse editing from them on and they would follow your instruction.

Anonymous said...

Let me preface my remarks by noting that I am lucky to be a native speaker and writer of English. Further, although I can read, write and speak competently in two other languages, and do the same incompetently in several more, I would find it daunting to produce my work in a foreign language. Indeed, it would slow down the pace of my publication production if I had to write in another language, even if I had access to a supporting writer who was technically competent in that language. Were it necessary for me to prepare my work in another language though, you can be certain that the content itself would be polished to the finest correctness no matter how awkward the writing might be.

As a mathematician who is an active referee (3 - 5 papers per year not counting multiple revisions) for several journals, I am increasingly convinced that mathematicians in the West are essentially subsidizing mathematics in Asia. Further, while I realize that the plural of anecdote is not data, I have nonetheless seen evidence that my modeling correct writing has had minimal impact on the subsequent work of certain authors. A recent discussion with a senior editor for a major journal suggests that the editorial boards of math journals are beginning to grapple with this reality. While encouraging the development of mathematics (and more broadly, sciences) in Asia and engaging those mathematicians (and scientists) is beneficial for everyone, it is not fair to ask mathematicians (and scientists) in the West to assume the unrecognized and uncompensated responsibility for making work from Asia publishable here. To the degree that we neglect our own work or other obligations (family, friends, students) so that we can interpret, correct and rewrite papers for nonnative speakers, we should establish limits on our willingness to do so. Of course, if your department chair and dean believe that spending many hours doing editorial work for others compensates for your reduced productivity, then your situation is different from mine. At some point, there needs to be a professional carrot. If I have to not only correct simple issues such as verb tenses or singular-plural conflicts, but also wrestle with poor mathematics, then perhaps I should have some authorship rights acknowledged in the final product.

Just my two cents. (Hey ,there goes a day's salary!)

geomom said...

FSP--honestly? I think this is nuts and probably a waste of your time if you are not directly involved in the research. I have done this type of editing FREQUENTLY as a reviewer or a co-author but I would never do it under the circumstances you describe. What I might do is recommend that the paper be submitted to a certain journal and have them request me as a reviewer if they wanted my input.

just a few cents!

Anonymous said...

Some people just can't believe anyone would ever willingly help anyone else. When they want something, they don't ask: they resort to manipulation. It's really quite weird.

As for the validity of the guilt-tripping scientist's comments, this follows a similar logic:

"Hi, male fellow scientist! Did you know that people like you (men) have cruelly oppressed people like me (women) for centuries? Because of that, you have to help me with my work and comply to all my requests. If you don't, you are a selfish, privileged person and besmirch the pure ideals of science."

Privilege is one thing, personal responsibility on someone elses work another.

Recovering Academic said...

Lurker comments

I left the academic world years ago but I ran into this type of thing both there and in some of my other jobs.

There are people who will lean on you just because they find it easier to do that than actually learning how to work. These people are analogous to to those clowns we all knew as undergraduates -- the ones who wanted our help on homework because they could not be bothered learning the material themselves.

I say, to hell with them. I have enough to do with my own work and can't take on the work of other people.

I am sympathetic to people who do not have first rate research facilities. However, I taught at a fourth rate American college with lousy facilities for many years. The academic community never reached out to me. This is not a complaint. It is just a statement of fact.

On the same note, how would you or, indeed, anybody on this list feel if a native English speaker at a lousy American college asked for help out of the blue. I suspect that person would be sent packing.

Things cleared up a bit when I became a statistical consultant. People would ask me for freebies and and I would quote them my consulting fees. They would go away very quickly. Perhaps you should set up your own consulting firm. It is not really that hard.

In particular, get rid of the guy who gives you guilt trips right now. I think all of us who read this blog or lurk on it would applaud that.

One final note... If PhysioProf had not made his comment about non-tenured faculty, I would have. Getting tenure is the most important duty they have.

Keep on posting and I will vanish back to cyberspace.