Scholars whose first language is not English often struggle to publish their research in international journals. As university language teachers and researchers, we have spent years working with novice scholars from various disciplines to help them improve their manuscripts for publication. Here, we offer a few suggestions on how to write more effectively for international journals.
Use modern tools
At the core of academic writing is re-use: we build on the ideas, words and language of others. It is impossible for novice scholars to write adequately without first getting comfortable with re-using a body of research literature.
Many first-year research students we have taught are yet to benefit from research-management tools such as Zotero, Mendeley and EndNote. These tools not only generate references for authors automatically in word processors, but they also allow researchers to build personal libraries of academic papers and take notes on how excerpts of research articles could be re-used in future manuscripts. By using Zotero functions such as collections, tags and related items, researchers can also establish a digital library of linked research items.
Learn from research articles in target journals
After building their library of research literature, researchers can then learn how to analyse the language of articles published in their target journals, as opposed to the content.
Try to understand the construction of the texts: ask not what the authors have to say; examine how they say it. Researchers should look at the ‘stages’ of arguments that other authors create through specific sentence structures and formats, which can be recycled.
For example, the introduction of a paper typically has a generic beginning (“One area of increasing attention is…”); middle (“Most previous studies have not directly addressed the issue of …”); and end (“This study aims to…”). Researchers should not copy these directly — that could constitute plagiarism — but noticing the patterns of previously published papers and making conscious efforts to re-purpose them is worthwhile.
Use electronic tools to improve word choice and sentence variety
Accessing a collection of research articles in electronic form can help scholars to choose the right words and vary the structures of sentences in their paper. An online database called the Corpus of Contemporary American English, for example, features a sub-collection of research articles (containing 112 million words) with a search function where users may input an individual word and find out what’s commonly put around that word, which will show how others construct their sentences.
Google Scholar’s advanced search function can also help students to imitate sentences in specific journals.
For example, a Google Scholar search for ““increasing attention” source:Nature” produces 3,160 sentences that contain this phrase in Nature articles, thus showcasing a range of grammatical structures for novice writers to re-use.
Seek feedback from supervisors and language teachers
Finally, research students should seek feedback on their manuscripts from supervisors early, to ensure that their Introduction and Discussion sections make convincing cases for their research1. As language teachers, we often receive requests for help proofreading manuscripts.
Yet, for many novice scholars, the main difficulty is not grammatical accuracy, but how to express their ideas clearly and coherently.Writers can benefit more from face-to-face discussion with language teachers on how to revise their manuscripts than from paying for editing services provided by anonymous proofreaders2.
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