Insider Tips on Getting Published in English-language Journals | Karen Englander, Ph.D. | Lex Academic Blog

English was not always considered the “language of science”. Many European languages used to be common in scientific and scholarly journals: French, German, Russian, and English were all in circulation. In fact, in 1920, German was the dominant language of publication, especially in medicine, biology and chemistry.

Even with the rise of English, it is not a better language for science – its importance grew with the increasing research, cultural and economic power of the United States, from the 1950s onwards. Now, the power of English has become solidified through indexes like Web of Science (Clarivate) and Scopus that overwhelming include only journals that publish in English[i].

Prestige accrues to scientists and scholars around the world who seek to participate in this English-language publishing world. Additionally, institutions and careers may demand English publications[ii].

But there are difficulties that authors face when English is not their first language. In fact, the burden of writing in English-as-an-additional language is quantifiable. Independent studies performed with Mexican (Spanish-speaking) and Taiwanese (Mandarin-speaking) scientists asked them to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 how difficult it is to write a paper in their first language, and then rate on the same scale how difficult it is to write in English. Results showed that it is 24% more difficult for them to write in English than in their first language[iii]. It also creates more anxiety and authors are often less satisfied with the published paper.

With the dominance of English (some would say hegemony), there is a strong perception by some international authors that the reviewers who judge papers for publication are biased: reviewers are sometimes thought to be more critical of papers when they are written by someone with a non-Anglophone name or from an institution outside the United States, Canada, or Western Europe. While anecdotes of bias are often refuted by editors, research demonstrates a strong correlation between an internationally diverse editorial board and greater acceptance of manuscripts from those editors’ country of origin[iv].

There is also empirical evidence that when the author and institution are not revealed to the reviewer (this is termed “double-blind” review), these manuscripts fare better in reviewer comments and manuscript acceptance[v]. Similarly, double-blind review has been shown to increase the likelihood that manuscripts written by women are accepted[vi] (Kern-Goldberger, 2022). When women authors submit manuscripts to a journal that reveals the name of the author(s) to reviewers, they sometimes submit their manuscripts using only first initial, so that their gender is not known.

So, what is an author to do to improve the prospects of sailing through peer review? Here are some ideas.

  1. Target the right journal for your research:

    1. Look carefully at the editorial board. You may want to choose a journal with editors from your country.
    2. Take note of journals in which those whom you reference publish. This can indicate that those journals are interested in your research area.
    3. Read the Information for Authors, especially the Scope and Type of Articles they publish. Pay attention to what they prioritize. Don’t send a quantitative research paper to a journal interested in qualitative research. Don’t send applied research to a pure research journal (they may only publish solicited papers). They may publish short papers or research briefs, and that might be appropriate for your research.
  2. Know your scholarly contribution:

    1. It is critical that you can say succinctly what you have done and why it is important. Journals want to publish work that makes a contribution by furthering the field in some way. Don’t make reviewers guess at the importance of your work.
    2. Write a sentence that says something like: In this paper we demonstrate that … by using/doing … [method], which is important because … [how it is unique in the field]. Here are some examples:

      In this paper, we demonstrate that harmful algal blooms in the Baltic Sea can be detected earlier than previously reported by using satellite imagery algorithms, which means that threats to human health can be tracked earlier and more accurately.

      In this paper, we argue that Mayan iconography, which has traditionally been conceived as barbaric, is, in fact, a powerful message of reconciliation by examining then-contemporary missionary accounts. Our reconceptualization provides a reinterpretation that opens new methods of interpreting Latin American civilizations.

      You may find that this is not the final wording that will appear in your Introduction and Abstract, but it might be. And this exercise will clarify for you exactly what your paper is about. Once you have your contribution statement clear, write the rest of the paper with that in mind. You want to provide the evidence that makes the statement true. Do not include information or ideas that extend beyond this statement.

  1. Read a lot and write as best you can:

    1. Your paper probably won’t be rejected owing to some subject-verb disagreement. But long sentences can confuse your reader. Write short sentences. Be sure every sentence has a grammatical subject, verb, and object.
    2. Put the right information in each section: Don’t put Results into the Methods unless that is typical in your field (e.g., experimental psychology). Don’t speculate in Results. Save that for the Discussion.
    3. Structure the Introduction like other papers in the target journal. A typical structure usually has three main parts: (i) discuss existing research in the field as background; (ii) identify what is missing in the existing literature, often called the gap; and (iii) state your contribution to the field that fills that gap.
    4. Obey the journal’s rules for citations and references, figures and tables.
  2. Build networks:

    1. Build networks of people in the field: your professors, advisors, and collaborators. Also, extend that network to, perhaps, plenary speakers at a conference in your field or other conference presenters. Consider others who publish in your area.
    2. Tell selected people in your network what you are working on (but don’t give away precious findings) and ask for their advice on where to publish. If they recommend a particular journal or a particular editor, then mention that in your cover letter submission. People like to be acknowledged and recognized for their expertise.
    3. Build a network of colleagues (or fellow students) who you can ask to read a paper before you submit it. Ask them to pay attention to the following areas: Is title right for the paper? Is the contribution clear? Does each section say what it needs to say? Are there ideas or sections that are confusing? Of course, you must offer the same to your colleagues in return.
  3. Persist:

    1. If you submit a paper and the journal gives you the opportunity to revise, do so. The editorial decision to “revise” is not a rejection. You are invited to make changes/improvements, so address all the reviewer comments. Note that you don’t have to implement all the reviewer suggestions (and some will contradict each other!), but you must answer them all. You can state that you disagree with a comment (e.g., while this is an interesting suggestion by Reviewer A, the additional analysis is outside the scope of this research), but you must address it.
    2. If you submit a paper and the journal rejects it, find another one. Adjust to the new journal guidelines, solicit editorial help if you need it, and submit.
    3. Persist.

[i] Englander, K. (2014). Writing and publishing science research paper in English: A global perspective. Springer.

[ii] Englander, K., & Corcoran, J. N. (2019). English for research publication purposes: Critical plurilingual pedagogies. Routledge.

[iii] Hanauer, D. I., Sheridan, C. L., & Englander, K. (2019). Linguistic injustice in the writing of research articles in English as a second language: Data from Taiwanese and Mexican researchers. Written Communication36(1), 136-154.

[iv] García-Carpintero, E., Granadino, B., & Plaza, L. (2010). The representation of nationalities on the editorial boards of international journals and the promotion of the scientific output of the same countries. Scientometrics84(3), 799-811.

[v] Saposnik, G., Ovbiagele, B., Raptis, S., Fisher, M., & Johnston, S.C. (2014). Effect of English proficiency and research funding on acceptance of submitted articles to Stroke journal. Stroke, 45 (6), 1862-1868.

[vi] Kern-Goldberger, A. R., James, R., Berghella, V., & Miller, E. S. (2022). The impact of double-blind peer review on gender bias in scientific publishing: a systematic review. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, in press.