Monday, May 26, 2008


I have been asked to review a paper for a rather low ranking journal. I am not knocking the journal, it serves a purpose for a popular sub field in which I've done some research. The reason the editor asked me to review was that I co-authored a paper that was published in said journal and cited in the paper I've been asked to review.

I pride myself in being a very conscientious reviewer. With my shiny new PhD, I'm only asked a few times a year and I want to be known as a good reviewer, especially by editors for the journals in which I'd like to publish. I also REALLY appreciate well written reviews that obviously indicate that the reviewer took the time to read and evaluate my work (even if it's not a positive review).

I am struggling with this paper that I've been asked to review in a way I have never struggled before. The author is obviously not a native English speaker. The grammatical, word choice, and sentence structure issues that make it clear that the author is a non-native speaker are also making it nearly impossible to get through the article. I want to make it clear that these writing issues are very serious. I have to read and re-read each section trying to figure out exactly what the author is trying to say. Sometimes there are words missing from the sentence so that I have to figure out what may be missing to make the sentence make any sense at all. It's an incredibly frustrating process, as it really clouds the science which is what I'm trying to evaluate.

I haven't even finished reading the article as it is taking me 3x longer to read each section that I would have expected. So here's my dilemma. Should I even write a real review for this piece?

On one hand I want to send the editor a note saying that the writing issues make it impossible for me to evaluate the science and therefore I can't do the review. On the other hand, I do not ever refuse to do a review and feel guilty for even wanting to do this. When I agreed to do this review I had no idea the time and energy it would take and I feel like it's such a waste of time trying to figure out what the author is trying to say. Even if I write a full review my #1 comment has to be that the paper needs to be completely re-written to ever appear in the journal.

As another issue, I am also wondering whether the editor even read any of the paper. How could they have missed the major writing problems with this paper? I suspect that this journal never triages any of their papers (not many in my field do, almost every one of them send out every paper to be reviewed), so even if the editor noticed the writing issues perhaps they still have to send it out via journal policy.

So I'm interested in hearing from all of you.

1. Would you write a thorough review or just let the editor know that it's unreasonable to review the manuscripts current state? I am also curious to hear whether you would do the same thing if the paper was just really poorly written but it was not clear that it was a language issue (i.e. you knew the person was a native speaker of the language or it wasn't as clear cut as it is in the case of this particular manuscript)?

2. Do you this (or if you are an editor, do you) editors should read at least some of the article prior to sending it out for review?

3. Do you think that editors should send out papers even if they know there are major writing issues with the paper?

4. Does your field do any triaging? Are you pro and anti this process?

I'm really interested in hearing what other have to say.


Di Di said...

Unfortunately as a second year I have no idea how to handle this situation -- it's never come up for me -- but I'm also curious about what others have to say because I will be working on a journal with my advisor starting this summer. He will be the editor, so it will be our job to send papers out for review.

But just thinking without any experience, it seems unreasonable to ask you to review something where it's a serious struggle to even figure out the meaning of each sentence. It obviously can't be published as is, so maybe it should be revised (for language) and resubmitted for a review of the science? Hard to say...

Amanda said...

I don't have much reviewing experience. However, I think if it's taking you about 3x as long to read than any other manuscript, I think it's fine to write a cursory review and state that it needs to be re-written. I'm not sure about psychology, but I know that in biochem there are services for non-native English speakers that edit manuscripts for grammar, etc. Maybe you could recommend one of those?

DC said...

I would definitely let the editor know about the issues and explain that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the paper based on its scientific merits. Good luck!

On another note, thank you very much for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. I hope we can keep in touch! :)

PhysioProf said...

I have had this kind of experience more than once, and have discussed it at length with journal editors.

(1) In this circumstance, it is appropriate to simply state as your review that the very poor writing makes it infeasible to review the substance of the science. This is appropriate regardless of whether it is a language issue or a shitty-writer issue.

(2) Editors frequently read only the abstract, especially in the case of low-impact journals that obly triage minimally.

(3) If an editor is convinced that the writing of the paper is so bad that it cannot be feasibly--i.e., with less than heroic effort--reviewed for substance, then the paper should be triaged, with a note to the authors about why it has been triaged, and an express understanding that if the paper is rewritten comprehensibly enough, it could be reconsidered for review.

(4) It's not field-specific how much triaging goes on; it's specific to the prestige of the journal. The more prestigious journals receive more decent manuscripts, and so the less good ones can be triaged. The less prestigious journals need to take what they get.

As a reviewer, I am very pro-triage. As an author, I am very anti-triage.

Psychgrad said...

I have reviewed articles written by non-native speakers of English. One was a clear reject paper, so I wrote general comments about the major issues with the paper and suggested the revisions that I felt were necessary and also suggested that they make serious stylistic revisions with, perhaps, editing by a native speaker of English.

On another paper that was also written by a non-native speaker of English, the paper was more of a revise and resubmit and I also suggested that they have an native speaker of English review the paper for ease of comprehension. They said that they did this for the second draft, but there were still areas that were obviously poorly translated. I ended up making suggestions about how to change the sentences/word selection, which is probably not my job.

In your case, I would suggest that if you can, you write a few general comments about the paper and say that a more in-depth review would require major revisions and editing for its use of English.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I'm pro-triage because it saves everyone time. Of course, it's frustrating for the author, but at least then they can fix and resubmit to another journal more quickly than if it took X weeks to receive rejecting reviews.

All of the journals in my field specify that authors, especially non-native speakers, should not hesitate to have native speakers carefully review for grammar mistakes, etc.

I think the editor was in poor judgement for sending it out; however, I'm sure s/he will be anticipating that you would say that the paper is in an unacceptable state.

In Due Time said...

Congrats on your shiny new PhD, my dbf is going to get his this fall. :-) I'm here from NCLM, nice to "meet" you!

Psych Post Doc said...

I really appreciate all of the comments everyone.

The consensus here really helps to ease my guilt and I will be writing the editor and suggesting that the paper is just unacceptable at this point.

PP- I think you're right for the most part about the triaging at high impact and not low impact. However, it's hardly done in Psych even in the higher impact journals. It has to be really bad in some really obvious way to be triaged. I think like many in the role of editor or reviewer are pro-triage, but as authors they're anti-triage so nothing ever changes.

Wordgirl said...

Hi -- here through Nacomleavo --

As an composition instructor at a community college (more on this on my blog) I get the opportunity to discuss this issue, albeit on a very different level, at great length.

I truly believe there's a fundamental break-down happening early on in education - that though we acknowledge that writing-across-the-curriculum is relevant and invaluable -- we can't solve those problems so that even at the post-doc level you can see the disconnect.

I'm leaving the profession though -- so I'm one to talk about 'solving' the problem.



sara said...

Hi, I'm over from NaComLeavMo. Wow, that's a tough one to answer. You would think that the editor should at least read the article prior to sending it to review, and no I don't think that they should send it out if major issues are present. But I have no official experience with this topic, so I am definitely probably not the person who should be giving my opinion :-)

seriously? said...

Hi here by way of NaComLeavMo. I haven't been through a PhD program or anything (only an MA in Psych), but I would as said by a few other people write back to the editor that the quality of english language makes the science difficult to evalute and you suggest a re-write with focus on the grammer, etc.

I remember those days as an under grad and grad waiting to hear about papers submitted. I don't envy this difficult position though.

Naomi said...

Jeez...I reread and rewrite my comments! If the author couldn't be bothered to correct his own work and confirm that it's coherant, why are you wasting your time reviewing it? Send it back to the editor with a note that says what you said here, it's crap.

Erin said...

Here from NaComLeavMo. My Ph.D. is in pharmacology, not psych, but I know it's frustrating to get papers like that to review. If the article isn't readable in its current form, I would send back the review saying that.

Sam said...

If you want to keep your status as someone who will always do reviews when asked, I would review it. However, I would discuss the problems that you find in your review. I think that editors should read something prior to sending it out, however that may not be possible given the workload. I do not think editors should send out illegible crap.

Nit said...

Hola from NaComLeavMo...

Thanks for the comment & I will let you know once I find a cure for our "disease" :)

1. I think I would communicate to the editor the huge issues. Why waste your time trying to re-write the article? I would do this in either case. After all, the person writing the article should not only be knowledgable in the field, but should also have decent writing skills.

2. I think editors should read before sending avoid this exact problem.

3. Not at is not your job as a "reviewer" to re-write the paper, which someone else will get credit for.

4. I am very pro triage. I know with most legal journals articles are submitted to faculty prior to being sent out.

Good luck & let us know what you ended up doing!

thenextfish said...

That's a tough one. I definitely think there are too many journals with a Western bias and we need to be more supportive of our colleagues who speak English as a second language by offering to proof-read and giving articles a chance even when language is a major problem.

From what you've read you probably already have a good sense on whether the article does contribute something. If it really is a good article then I would keep reviewing and indicate that it needs some major editting prior to publishing. If it's only mediocre I would be a little less detailed and indicate to the editor that you had a lot of trouble reading the paper and that prevented you from being able to make more extensive comments.

I'm always completely paranoid I'm going to make a bad recommendation when I'm reviewing so I can sympathize.

Psych Post Doc said...

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Thenextfish- I hear you.I am sensitive to this issue and I have actually co-authored a publication with a colleague specifically because they were told their paper wouldn't be published unless they found a native english speaker to edit it.

The paper I'm reviewing needs just as much editing as the one I ended up a co-author on. And I just don't think it's my job, besides the fact that I'm not sure that my interpretation is what the author wants to say anyway.

I'm going to write the short review outlining my concerns that a full review isn't possible without major editing. I'm also going to offer to review another draft if the author decides to revise after seeking help with the writing issues.

Abbey said...

First, I don't know what this triaging business is. I've been publishing for 5 years and have never heard the term.

Second, a thought as I was reading through all these comments above. I've done some reviewing and had a similar problem. Thankfully there were enough methodological issues that I could focus on that for rejection. However, the thought I had was that you owe it to the future readers to make sure the authors don't publish in its current state. I don't think you should rewrite - review should be something to the effect of 'substantial revisions needed'. That should scare them off!