Awareness of Linguistic Limitations 4/5

Having compiled your data, found a quiet place to work, delimited your study, identified a suitable target journal and thoroughly read its Instructions for authors, you are ready to begin writing. However, while switching on your word processor, and throughout the rest of the process, it is important to note that if you are writing in English and you are not a native speaker or highly skilled non-native speaker, your writing style has to be adjusted accordingly. Notably:

  • It is essential to write more simply than in your first language.
  • Much of the advice in standard textbooks about writing papers in English is not helpful, because it tells you what to do, but not how to do it, thus it is like a sculptor saying that to create a model of Napoleon you should form a mental image of him and then mold your material into a likeness of it. This is true, but most of us need a little more guidance.
  • It may be impossible for a non-native speaker to cover all the key points and be clear and concise and highlight the importance of the study.

If your language skills are not sufficient to address all of the major points clearly and concisely, it is essential to prioritize clarity. Then an English-speaking editor, friend or colleague can understand the paper and if necessary improve the English.

To illustrate this point, both authors of this guide can write simple sentences in French, but if we try to write complex sentences they become incomprehensible.

Editors and referees have similar problems with many papers written by non-native speakers.

For example, a paper we edited recently was full of sentences like:

Physical obstacles have been created purely historically reasons and therefore they would be disappeared, especially at nuclear loci quite quickly, but environmental obstacles will probably be persistent for much longer times due to ecological reasons.

Many referees or editors of journals may decide that such papers have to be rewritten, because they are too difficult to understand, or merely reject them, because they think that making them comprehensible will require too much effort. Therefore, if you cannot write fluently in English (or any other stipulated language), it is essential to write simply, preferably in short sentences that are easy to understand. An experienced editor can then make the phrasing more elegant. For example, another paper we handled recently had many passages such as:

 A linear correlation between nickel uptake and nitrate uptake was found; the nickel uptake increased with nitrate uptake. Another correlation was found with phosphate uptake; when nickel uptake decreased phosphate uptake also decreased.

This can be stated much more elegantly, as follows: Positive linear correlations were found between nickel uptake and both nitrate and phosphate uptake. However, although the text was too long and repetitive, it was easy to understand and edit because the sentences were simple. Thus, it was preferable in many ways to papers with confusingly complex sentences.

Linguistic limitations are further factors that may be considered when choosing a target journal since there are substantial variations in the linguistic standards of journals, and these do not always correlate strongly with their impact factors (i.e., some highly ranked journals do not require the language to be as polished as some less highly ranked journals). Therefore, if you are not a skilled writer, it may be worth identifying journals that sometimes publish papers with poor linguistic standards, especially if you need to publish a paper quickly (for instance to support a grant application). A native English-speaking friend working in your field may be able to help identify such journals.


Blackwell, J., & Martin, J. (2011). A scientific approach to scientific writing (p.6). Springer Science & Business Media.

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