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English, science, and the editor as advocate

Does Science Need a Global Language? Book cover. (C) Chicago University Press 2013.
Does Science Need a Global Language? Book cover. (C) Chicago University Press 2013.

At a recent meeting of the BC branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, a panel discussed the role of editors in ensuring accessibility to information. One of the final questions asked was, “Are editors advocates?” I think that yes, we absolutely are. But here’s another question: What are we advocates for? There are some general things we advocate for, clear communication being one, but I think that each of us has something specific that is important to us and that we should cultivate in our roles as editors.

Issues of linguicism and the spread of English are close to my heart, and now that I work in science communications I’m even more aware of these issues in the context of international science scholarship. So, I was very curious and excited to pick up Scott L. Montogomery’s 2013 book, Does Science Need a Global Language? English and the future of research.

Montgomery argues that a scientific lingua franca is a good thing, and that English has already become that language. I don’t want to get into a debate about those points. Instead, I want to talk about what the issues raised in the book made me ask about my own position.

The editor as gatekeeper

To illustrate the evolution of English as the lingua franca of science, Montgomery presents a case study of the geoscience journal Geologische Rundshau, which was first published in 1910. In 1997 it changed its name to International Journal of Earth Sciences (IJES). Originally, the journal was published only in German, with its first non-German article published, in French, in 1949. In 1950 it published its first article in English. By 1997, the year the journal changed its name, all articles were in English. Montgomery shows how international collaborations on articles in the journal increased after 1990, and how a growing number of the journal’s articles are now written by authors whose first language is not English.

In this case study, Montgomery writes that the changes to the journal’s language policies “were guided from without, by the greater community of researchers, and generated from within, by editors—key gatekeepers—as they struggled and argued to bring their pages to as wide an international audience as possible” (pp. 95-96).

Thinking of myself as a gatekeeper makes me uncomfortable, but I have to acknowledge that editors do occupy a unique position in the world of language. We often carry a lot of power, sometimes by being the ones who decide what gets published (as in the case of managing editors) and sometimes by deciding what language is used (as in the case of stylistic and copy editors). Whether or not we like the idea of English as the language of science, the reality is that more science writers are writing in English, and in many cases it is not their first language. In this context, where authors might lack confidence not just in their writing skills, but in their language skills, editors have even more power.

Caught in the middle

So can we use this power positively? I hope so, but a lot of the time we’re stuck in the grey area between policy or convention and on-the-ground reality.

We know the rules of the language, but we also know where those rules can bend, and we’re required to exercise judgment in how heavily we apply them. Our job is generally not to rewrite a document, especially not to suit our own preferences. Unless we’re moulding a text to a corporate or institutional voice, our job is to respect the author and make only necessary changes while, above all, preserving the author’s voice. So what do we do when that author’s voice is a marginalized one, when that author’s voice—both the literal spoken voice and the written voice—is not respected by the target audience? Do we change a little bit more than we usually would, to make the writer sound more like the reader? How do we decide what changes are necessary? Do we let an unidiomatic yet grammatically correct phrase go?

We’re also taught that our role is to act as a proxy for the reader, to make sure that the text is comprehensible to the target audience. In the context of editing the work of people whose first language is not English, that audience is often defined as the “native speaker.” But if we’re to accept that English is the lingua franca of science, then the primary audience is not one of “native English speakers”—it is one of speakers of various Englishes, many of whom learned English as an additional language. This raises two more questions. Can we act as proxies for the reader if we are only used to one type of English? How can we edit with a sensitivity toward multiple Englishes when a “standard” English is still what journals and publishers want?

The editor as advocate

So what do we do in this grey area? This is where we get to advocate.

Champion people who write in other languages
More than once I’ve heard an editor say that they don’t take on “ESL clients.” (Aside: the term “ESL” is on its way out.) It is difficult to edit these types of papers, but dismissing a whole category of writers just adds to the stigma these writers already carry.

We need to understand the incredible investment it takes to learn another language to an academic level. In his book, following a discussion of the tremendous amount of effort and time that some scholars spend on learning English, Montgomery writes, “In a wealthy nation with a very high level of education and scientific instruction, becoming competent in a second language cannot be counted as an overwhelming barrier” (p. 115). This statement doesn’t account for the complex pressures of race, gender, socioeconomic status and other factors that countless people in so-called wealthy nations find are indeed a barrier to many achievements, including proficiency in an additional language. And what about scientists from non-“wealthy” nations?

Academic and scientific language can be challenging for anyone to master, even in their native language. Jim Cummins’s well-known distinction between BICS (basic interpersonal communicative skills) and CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) highlights the different type of language proficiency that the academic context requires. Read this blog for some insight into the difficulties that academics may face when operating in English.

Provide more support
To an extent, saying that you don’t edit work by non-native writers is fair, because editing this kind of material requires a specific skill set. This type of editing is a hybrid of stylistic and copy-editing, with a whole bunch of other factors thrown in. I think it would go a long way if the EAC acknowledged this type of editing as a specific skill and helped develop and source resources for Canadian editors, like this one and this one.

Address the ethics
The internet is full of sites offering to “edit” papers for non-native speakers of English. In a lot of these cases, editing actually means rewriting. This is unethical, not only because these sites are committing academic misconduct by writing work for someone else, but because they are preying on the insecurity of these writers. I don’t think this is really a problem among professional editors, by which I mean people who have been trained in editing and are aware of industry standards and resources like EAC’s guidelines for editing theses. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. As we educate people about the role of editors through initiatives like EAC’s Hire an Editor campaign, we should address ethics and emphasize that professional editors don’t engage in shady behaviour.

Finally, we need to talk to the authors we’re working with. These are intelligent, talented people, and I don’t want to imply that they need to be advocated for because they themselves have no power. Let’s listen to our writers’ voices and advocate with them. That’s the best way to make sure we’re not gatekeepers.

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