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  • CAREER COLUMN

Don’t focus on English at the expense of your science

An interpreter in a booth speaks into a microphone.

A Russian interpreter at the United Nations. Gaining English-language skills is useful, but if it gets in the way of your research, it’s better to turn to professionals.Credit: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty

Most of my 19 years in Russian academia has been spent teaching English to students. But in 2014, my employer at the time, Tomsk Polytechnic University, gave me a new task: delivering full English courses to academics. I’ve been giving similar courses ever since.

My experience of teaching English to Russian academics has shown me how deeply many believe that a language barrier is the main reason their papers do not get published. Most think that improving their English will help to make their academic texts into publishable papers, and so spend time and effort on that. In reality, linguistic competence takes second place to the ability to produce quality scientific content. For editors and reviewers, good science is almost always more important than language ability.

Still, language does matter — papers must at least be understandable — and I regularly find myself frustrated at the status quo. Science too often demands that non-native English-speaking (NNES) academics focus on learning to speak and write in English, which drastically disadvantages them. Even if NNES academics eventually learn perfect English, they will have spent so much of their professional time and effort on this endeavour that they might find themselves lacking in ability to actually work on science.

With that in mind, I have some advice on how academics keen to learn English might spend their time reasonably. Hopefully, this will help NNES academics to communicate their work without sinking too much of their valuable time into language.

Choose your course carefully

In NNES academic institutions, English courses are often delivered as a part of professional-development programmes. Often, they are free and delivered on a short-term or long-term basis. Most are aimed at developing skills in academic writing and speaking, to help academics to communicate their research in a variety of formats. Similar courses are also offered by organizations beyond the university sector.

I am convinced that a course in academic reading is a must-have, regardless of your language level. Such courses help to develop appropriate reading strategies, vocabulary, comprehension and critical-reading skills. They’re often offered by local or overseas organizations, frequently online. Free resources — some designed for NNES researchers — can be found from online-learning platforms FutureLearn, OpenLearn and Coursera.

Similarly, online platforms including OpenLearn offer courses aimed specifically at developing critical-reading skills. In addition to reading journal articles, I always recommend that my learners read complicated texts — especially PhD theses produced at UK universities. This is because many are available for free through the British Library’s E-Theses Online Service (EThOS), and they are likely to be written in good academic English. This resource can provide a wide range of high-quality academic texts to enrich your understanding of how research is done and communicated.

If you are somewhere between an independent and proficient user of English (it’s worth looking at the guidelines from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages to determine your own level of proficiency), taking a course in academic writing can have a positive effect. Depending on the course objectives, you might be able to develop your academic linguistic competence in general, develop your academic writing specifically in relation to your own discipline, or identify and correct mistakes in your written English. Remember that no course will immediately make you able to prepare your manuscript in English on your own. But it might improve how you work on the text with editors and translators.

Seek help

If you can produce a draft of your manuscript in English, get it proofread before submitting to a journal. If you’re not confident in your language abilities, producing a manuscript in your native language and then seeking a professional translator might be more sensible.

In either case, keep in mind that the quality of the source material affects the quality of the final version. It is important that the original text is written in clear and concise language. Make no attempt to change content after the translator has started working, because that could impact their ability to translate the text as a whole.

No matter what form of assistance you choose, it is a good idea to assist back. For example, provide the editor or translator with a glossary — a list of specific terms, abbreviations and acronyms — or any reference mat-erials from your subject area. Also, book time to discuss the work with them when questions emerge.

You don’t need to hire a native speaker

Often, native speakers are considered the best choice for text proofreading and editing. However, they might not have the necessary scientific knowledge and experiences, and might struggle to use academic English and describe science effectively. Native speakers might also be inaccessible, or simply too expensive. Instead, it could be worth approaching local professionals who aren’t native speakers, but are proficient users of English. They will have the important advantage of the ability to communicate well in your native language. In editing situations, this can reduce uncertainties and make the process of text revision less stressful.

Writing for English-language publication will remain a topic of interest for NNES academics. Although I hope my advice is helpful, I nevertheless think that most researchers should focus on doing research and generating knowledge instead of boosting their English skills.

Rather than investing seemingly endless time in learning English so that researchers can share their findings with a global audience, it makes sense to re-evaluate researchers’ needs, reconsider training and seek support from language professionals. This would be a better investment of resources for all involved.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01905-z

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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