ANALYSIS & OPINION

Good language is vital to research communication

14 January 2013



Valerie Matarese reflects on the emerging new profession of language professionals and calls for greater recognition of the people who facilitate research writing, especially with non-Anglophone researchers

A full research report, published in a peer-reviewed journal, marks the culmination of enormous effort and expenditure. But, for most researchers, preparing the manuscript and getting it through peer review is no simple feat; it requires skill in handling content, knowledge of reporting conventions, and mastery of language. And when the researcher-author is not a native English speaker, the requirement to publish in English makes the task more arduous.

Help is traditionally provided by mentors, collaborators and peers, but their support is collegial, not professional. Another form of support that is increasingly available, but often poorly understood or appreciated, is that provided by language professionals.

“Language professionals” provide support for writing and publication through activities such as language teaching, translation, editing and some forms of writing. These professionals work in freelance, entrepreneurial or institutional roles, and their services are provided in classroom, distance or one-on-one settings. They may intervene after a draft has been produced, as an authors' editor or translator for example. They may also facilitate the drafting process, as a developmental editor or writer, or provide early guidance as a teacher of English for specific purposes. Although their primary approaches vary, they share the broad goal of helping clients publish high-quality papers.

In the research setting, where authorship implies responsibility for content and counts towards career advancement, the provision of writing support is delimited by ethical and professional lines. Experienced language professionals know to preserve the boundary between writing support and authorship. Their interventions do not encroach on authorial control nor do they relieve authors of their intellectual responsibilities. For example, editors suggest changes but the decision to accept them rests with the authors, while writers (for example, medical writers) assume the task of writing as a conduit, but never a substitute, for the authors' ideas.

Writing facilitators, especially those who serve the academic community, uphold professional business practices, such as maintaining confidentiality and respecting intellectual property. Moreover, they update their clients about publication ethics and help them, for example, avoid plagiarism and clarify conflicts of interest. They are advocates of good publishing practices and support researcher-authors in adhering to today's increasingly stringent reporting guidelines.

Non-native English speakers

When language professionals support non-Anglophone researchers in their endeavours to publish in English, their work acquires an added dimension. To work effectively in this setting, language professionals must first and foremost have excellent English; this language is usually a mother tongue but can be a second language. Language professionals must also have particular skills to handle academic text written by non-native speakers.

These texts, for example, may contain non-English patterns of discourse that, if left intact in the final manuscript, could weaken its impact or hinder its acceptance. A skilled translator or editor seeks a linguistic solution that meets readers' expectations but remains as faithful as possible to the original. In texts drafted in English and sent for editing, language-learner errors and transfers from the author's mother tongue are common; editors who speak their client's first language are better able to recognise and rectify these text features than their monolingual colleagues. And, since language professionals communicate with authors—to inform, query and engage them in text revision—it follows that being multilingual (and multicultural) facilitates dialogue and improves the outcome of the service.

An important issue is that researchers' ability to write academic text and their proficiency in English vary enormously, depending on factors such as their native writing culture, field of study and exposure to English in higher education. Thus, one cannot generalise about their publishing needs nor propose standardised solutions.

Experienced language professionals individualise their services with a range of approaches that facilitate writing for publication. For example, translators may edit the source text before working in the target language, and editors may restructure a document before correcting sentence-level grammar. Furthermore, whether it is in their remit (as a writing instructor) or an added value (editor or translator), all will educate their clients about language, writing and publishing strategies.

Supporting research writing

Slowly, language professionals are becoming viewed as valued, trusted allies of research teams. They save researchers time, help them improve their writing, and maximise their chances of publication success.

However, only rarely do European universities hire individual language professionals or establish writing centres (with staff and freelance collaborators) to support a high-impact publishing strategy that is commensurate with the efforts and expenditures made in the laboratory. Greater awareness of the activities on offer, and how they meld with researcher-authors' own efforts and responsibilities in academic writing, could help research directors implement effective support services to improve their institutes' scientific production.

Valerie Matarese is an independent biomedical editor based in Italy, providing services such as author editing, developmental editing, science writing and information research. She also teaches research writing in graduate-level courses and one-on-one settings and is editor of the multi-authored volume Supporting Research Writing: Roles and challenges in multilingual settings, published by Chandos in late 2012