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.
12 years ago