Faculty who speak English as a first language (“L1”) and ESL faculty and post-doctoral fellows agree that ESL scholars often experience great difficulty writing successfully for publication in English language scientific journals. L1 scholars may express negativity toward their ESL colleagues in this regard, and the latter note significant frustration having their ideas understood and being mentored or assisted by the native speakers.
In a 2002 study conducted at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Pagel, Kendall & Gibbs interviewed 15 ESL faculty, 12 ESL fellows, and 4 L1 faculty to understand the perceptions and realities of the English writing abilities of ESL scholars for purposes of scholarly publication and advancement. The L1 faculty viewed providing coaching or mentoring to ESL fellows and junior faculty as time intensive, and of much greater benefit to the ESL scholar than to themselves. They did not expect to learn new things from the ESL scholar and did “not consider helping ESL faculty and fellows to be useful to their own careers.” (p. 112) Pagel and colleagues (2002) concluded, in part, that the complaints of L1 faculty do not recognize the possibility that these colleagues might, with sufficient training and attention, enhance the productivity of the research group.” (p. 112).
Furthermore, L1 faculty expressed concern that ESL fellows are at a loss when it comes to writing and need “spoon-feeding of conclusions.” (p. 112). Specifically regarding publishing, they commented, “For ESL people, I know I will have to rewrite an article from A to Z.” and “They give me things that are ‘completely unacceptable’ for publication.” (p. 112). Nonetheless, Pagel and colleagues (2002) found that L1s “recognize that better [ESL] writers would be valuable additions to their laboratories, but they are unwilling to assume the cost of training.” (p. 114).
ESL scholars were very aware of their writing challenges and how the L1 faculty regard their writing and abilities. They express frustration that L1 collaborators or senior faculty edit their work without consulting the ESL scholar. There is a strong sense they are not heard, are unable to express their ideas, “and henceforth … are not seen as valuable contributors.” (p. 113). Specific challenges reported by ESL scholars include: (1) having the ability to structure and publish a paper in their native language but not understanding the way to do so for an American or English-speaking audience; (2) writing the discussions of data and conclusions; and (3) having limited understanding of English generally and grammar particularly. They further noted the need for “specialized editorial service[s]”:
(1) Models / templates of scientific publications to follow;In contrast to ESL faculty, Pagel and colleagues (2002) indicated that
(2) Having an editor clean up their English or a translator to help them find the right words;
(3) Having an L1 who knows the science to review and edit their work, because ESL faculty “fear that when papers are edited, the interpretation of data would be distorted.” (p. 113)
(4) Improved methods of teaching ESL learners through college and into academia to write effectively in English.
"American-born faculty are exceedingly surprised by how much editors with liberal arts degrees seem to know about science. Of course, editors are in fact not so much knowledgeable as they are clever: They can follow a line of argument, look at the cues and clues in the sentence, and detect errors that on the surface would seem to require a scientist’s knowledge to recognize.” (pp. 113-114).In other words, an ESL scholar is likely to benefit significantly from the assistance of a skilled L1 editor, regardless of the editor’s specific disciplinary training.
Finally, to improve their English writing, ESL scholars suggested they would benefit from an editor’s “comments on how to improve for next time” and having “[o]pportunities to work in small groups on writing manuscripts.” (p. 114). Pagel and colleagues (2002) conclude with recommendations to
- Provide model or templates of the American or English structure of a scientific paper, such as presentation of data, discussion and conclusions
- “Make explicit the ways of doing things … that were long ago learned and integrated into the minds of editors who speak and write English as a first language.” (p. 114)
- Provide regular and comprehensive coaching from the beginning of an ESL fellow or faculty joining the institution.
Pagel, W.J., Kendall, F.E., & Gibbs, H.R. (2002). Self-Identified Publishing Needs of Nonnative English-Speaking Faculty and Fellows at an Academic Medical Institution, Science Editor, 25(4), 111-114.