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Linguistic Bias in Academic Publishing

(How Expert Academic Editing Can Help Level the Field)

Linguistic Bias in Academic Publishing

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9 July 2021

How expert academic editing can help level the field

It’s no secret that the peer review process can be biased. Over the past several decades, there has been growing awareness of peer review bias and its effects on the careers of scholars. Efforts have been made to address bias, but it may be even more pervasive than realised.

Peer review is a process used by academic publishers to evaluate author submissions. More broadly, it can be applied by academic hiring, funding, and conference committees to evaluate applicants. In journal peer review, experts from a particular discipline are invited to review the work of colleagues in the field. Review lends credibility to new research. It also helps communicate new findings to the broader academic community, policymakers, and practitioners. Bias in peer review, then, can have a significant impact on academic career advancement and access to other job opportunities.

Established bias in academic publishing

In 2001, Behavioral Ecology journal introduced a double-blind (when the identity of both author and reviewer is hidden) process of peer review. By 2008, a study found a small but important increase in the proportion of female first-authored papers published by the journal since the implementation of double-blind review. The evidence thus established a gender bias within the peer review process.

Although the peer review process was modified to eliminate unconscious bias, gender bias in academic publishing is hardly limited to authorship. For example, a 2017 article published in Nature pointed out that journals generally invite too few women to serve as peer reviewers. Peer review can be an important part of career building in that close scrutiny of other manuscripts helps researchers develop their own writing skills and expertise. It enables them to build networks with other scholars, editors, and leaders in their field. These contacts can be especially important in the early years of an academic career.

Worse, bias in authorship and peer review can accumulate over time. For instance, women are rarely appointed to prestigious editorial positions. Work as a journal editor enhances the profile of a scholar within their research community. Editors develop close familiarity with ongoing research in the field at large, which can provide new ideas for a scholar’s own research. Editorial positions are also powerful in that they can shape the culture of academic publishing and exert a major influence over the development of disciplines.

Evidence of linguistic bias in peer review

Similar dynamics could be playing out in terms of language. This is because scientific research and academic exchange are dominated by English. Nearly all high impact, international journals publish in English, particularly for the natural sciences. While it can be difficult to measure the quality of work under review regardless of language fluency, at least one recent paper has found concrete preliminary evidence of linguistic bias. In a randomized control study, a group of scholars was asked to judge the scientific quality of several abstracts with identical scientific content. Each abstract was rendered in two versions: one version was written in international academic English, while the other was not (but remained just as comprehensible). The findings suggest that scholars rate abstracts written in international academic English as having higher scientific quality than those that are not. In other words, reviewers perceived scholarship written by non-Anglophone scientists as lower in quality.

The study, which claims to provide the first experimental evidence for linguistic bias in academic publishing, speaks to dynamics similar to those for gender bias. Unlike with gender, however, perceptions about the quality or fluency of language can be highly subjective. Here, it is worth bearing in mind that peer reviewers have no special training or expertise in the use of English. International academic English is simply language that conforms to what a reviewer perceives is ‘good’ or ‘native-like’ English. Such writing is not necessarily good by the standards of prose or composition. It merely reflects what editors and reviewers are accustomed to reading.

Linguistic bias and scholarship

But linguistic bias goes further to encompass difficulties that could make publication for non-Anglophones less likely. In a review of the additional burdens imposed on non-Anglophone scholars from around the globe, one paper cites academics in Hong Kong feeling hampered by ‘less rich vocabulary’, and ‘less facility in expression’; problems with word choice and syntax that impede meaning; possible shortcomings in the understanding of English modality that could cause Slovak authors to inappropriately qualify their claims; and other language issues that weaken the effectiveness of an argument.

An increased likelihood of rejection could fuel a sense of inadequacy, leading non-Anglophone scholars to see publication in English as overly difficult. They may then take longer to search for and review sources, conduct research, and write manuscripts. Overall, this amounts to a larger investment of time and effort for each manuscript. Non-Anglophone scholars may find themselves in a situation similar to that of women, with fewer opportunities for advancement at critical points in their careers. Even if not actually disadvantaged in publication, non-Anglophone scholars may perceive themselves as such. In fact, research suggests this attitude is widespread.

Overcoming negative perceptions with academic editing

There are no easy solutions for the impacts of linguistic bias on perception. One pragmatic way to address bias in peer review is through departmental funding for professional academic editing, which is already a practice at many universities in non-Anglophone countries. Professional academic editing ensures that a paper will make a more positive first impression on readers. Working line by line, a professional academic editor can elevate the register and style of a manuscript so that it meets the expectations of peer reviewers and journal editors about how academic writing should look. A skilled academic editor can go beyond language mechanics to flag issues that impede meaning, helping strengthen an argument before the content is subject to peer review.

Overcoming bias, whether real or perceived, can be vital for confidence. Paper submission to English-language journals or conferences can be daunting for non-Anglophone scholars, especially early in their careers. Yet publication in English can also determine a scholar’s access to opportunity. Professional editing can help level the playing field, putting non-Anglophone researchers on equal footing (at least) with their Anglophone counterparts within the peer review process. In turn, participation in the submission process can confer benefits beyond publication. Ultimately, these benefits offer non-Anglophone scholars more agency within the highly competitive world of academic publishing.