Monday, July 15, 2013

The responsibility of the native speaker scholar

The responsibility of the native speaker scholar
Stephen Krashen

English has become the international language of scholarship.  In 1997, 95% of the articles cited in the Science Citation Index were in English, up from 83% in 1977 (Garfied, 1998; Van Leeuwen, Moed, Tussen, Visser, and Van Raan, 2001), and universities in non-English speaking countries often require that faculty members publish in English (e.g. Curry, 2001).

This places a termendous burden on nonnative speakers of English attempting to publish in English.  It is imperative that we do something about this, otherwise the wisdom and contributions of many nonnative speakers will be lost to us.

Many nonnative scholars have acquired an enormous vocabulary and a mastery of much of the academic style through voluminous extensive reading, but there are a number of late-acquired aspects of academic language that many have not fully acquired. These aspects of language are often cosmetic, not contributing to meaning, but editors and reviewers might be very sensitive to them.

A suggestion

Those of us who are native speakers should take some responsibility in helping nonnative English speaking colleagues prepare research papers for publication. Nonnative speakers can often appeal to local native speakers of English to proof-read their work, but such helpers rarely have a knowledge of the discipline and its particular writing style. It is up to us, those of us familiar with both, to help.

I suggest that each of us partner with at least one colleague, a colleague whose work is relevant to and contributes to our own, and volunteer our services for a limited amount of editing, perhaps three to five pages per month.  

We must pay a price for the advantage of being a native speaker of a language that has become the international language of scholarship.

Two suggestions for making the task easier.

Shorter papers: Many (not all) professional research papers are much longer than they need to be. Introductions need to be shorter, only necessary citations included, and discussion sections should be briefer, not repeating, what has already been stated in the paper (Krashen, 2012a). Many papers are written more in dissertation than journal style. 

Eliminate jibberish: Alfie Kohn has pointed out that:“Some scholars have slipped so far into the stylized talk – excuse me, discourse – of academia that important ideas are rendered virtually incomprehensible to most people. Because it sometimes seems that scholarship is valued by other academics in direct proportion to its inaccessibility, some individuals may have an instinctive aversion to writing in simple sentences even if they could remember how to do so.” (Aflie Kohn, 2003; Professors who profess.

The danger of jibberish is the difficulty of finding relevant information in articles (Krashen, 2012b). Nonnative speakers, as well as the rest of us, find them nearly impossible to read, and, of course to write. Plain, direct language, and papers that are as short as possible, will mean mean less inauthentic work and more authentic work for writers, readers, and, of course, those of us who act as volunteer editors.

Not ready for editing

Some of our colleagues may not be ready for our help, and first need to read more academic papers in English: The kind of service I am recommending is late-stage editing, making sure that the cosmetic aspects of academic English are taken care of.

Private services

A current solution is the use of paid consultants, private companies that offer editing services.  The problems with this solution include the fact consultants are not always familiar with the academic style of the writer's area, and the fact that these services are not available to everyone,

Even when they are available, it is often up to the scholar to pay for them, which is difficult given the very modest salaries in many research institution.


Coury, J. 2001. English as a lingua franca in the Brazilian academic community.
Krashen, S. 2012a. Academic jibberish. RELC Journal. 43 (2): 283-285.
Krashen, S. 2012b. A short paper proposing that we need to write shorter papers. Language and Language Teacher (Azim Premji University). 1(2): 38-39.
van Leeuwnen, T., Moed, H., Tussen, R., Visser, M. and van Raan, A. 2001. Language biases in the coverage of the Science Citation Index and its consequences for international comparisons of national research performance. Scientmetrics 51(1): 335-346.

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