How non-native English researchers can overcome barriers to academic publishing

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How non-native English researchers can overcome barriers to academic publishing

Chinese scientist Dr. Tida Ge, a decorated scholar of Plant Sciences, represents the new generation of scientific research in China. His talent has been recognized through a number of honorable awards, including the Lu JiaShi Young Talent Award, CAS (2013). Dr. Ge has published 70 articles and obtained two patents. He has also participated in and worked on projects with organizations like the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Dr. Ge holds a BSc in Soil and Plant Nutrition from Huazhong Agricultural University, China; an MSc in Crop Cultivation and Farming from Qingdao Agricultural University, China; and a PhD in Plant Sciences from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China. He was also a visiting scholar at Bangor University (UK) and Enhime University (Japan). Dr. Ge’s major research has focused on understanding below-ground processes with specific focus on nutrients behavior in soil-plant-microbial systems. Currently, he serves as the Deputy Director at the Institute of Subtropical Agriculture, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In this interview, Dr. Ge uses his own experience to provide practical guidance for overcoming challenges to publishing in English-language journals.

葛体达博士与英国班戈大学教授进行田野调查

When you started out, how easy or difficult did you find it to write academic articles in English? Did you face any specific challenges? Based on your experiences, would you like to share any tips with our readers?

At first, it was difficult because of the language barrier. I struggled with presenting my experiment methods and research findings in a way that the reviewers would clearly understand. While writing in English, I tended to follow the Chinese writing style and syntax, and as a result my writing was unnatural and sounded “Chinglish.” I realized that to overcome these difficulties, I had to keep reading papers published in the leading journals in my field to gradually improve my vocabulary and learn common expressions in academic writing. I also had to learn to write directly in English and think in English. My first published SCI article marked the formation of my English academic writing style.

There’re a few other things I learned early on. First, the key factor determining whether an academic article will be published is not the writing skills displayed by the author(s) but the contents of the paper. Second, you should ensure that you write a good introduction. I think the introduction does more than outlining your topic and sharing the results of similar published research. It describes the potential contribution your paper will make, which draws the attention of the reviewers. Next, the title is important: it should be innovative and at the same time embody your main work and research method. Include a detailed description of the materials and methods of your experiments, with statistics if needed, so that readers may notice the effort you have put into your research. If you follow these suggestions, the articles you write will have a higher chance of being approved by editors and reviewers.  

Sometimes reviewers have contradictory opinions on an article they are reviewing, and this can place authors in a quandary. Have you been in such a situation? How would you advise authors to handle conflicting comments from peer reviewers?

Yes, this could confuse authors a lot, especially young researchers. When I receive conflicting comments from peer reviewers, I deal with the situation very carefully. I first identify the main problems the reviewers have found and choose those recommendations that will not change the substance or value of my research. I have learned to do this from experience and by using my judgment. I then make specific modifications based on the relevant recommendations. Then, I tactfully respond to reviewers’ comments explaining my revisions and sharing my opinion in a polite manner, so that it is easier for the journal editors and reviewers to understand my point of view. 

You have been interacting with local Chinese as well as international English-language journals. How different are both interactions?

They are not very different. Most editors of the international journals I have communicated with are polite and professional. Once the language barrier was overcome, I began to understand the editors’ intentions quickly, which helped me navigate the publication process in a smoother way.

In the view of many, journal reviewers may not always make objective evaluations or decisions because of various reasons: they may not be subject specialists, they may not be clear about the logic and viewpoint the authors are trying to convey, or they may tend to draw rough conclusions without reading the paper carefully. Do you think this is the case?

The situations you mentioned are possible but I haven’t encountered them very often. This is because most journals ask you to recommend reviewers who are experts in your field. I trust that reviews are objective. If authors feel that they have received an unfair review, they should politely and professionally write to the journal editor about it. They should clearly explain why the evaluation is being viewed as unfair. Polite and logical refutation will leave an impression on the journal editors and help authors deal with the situation in a smoother manner.

Watch this space for the next part of this interview with Dr. Ge, in which he provides practical guidance on how to stay on top of the research most relevant to you and more.

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