Ten Top Tips for Reviewing in a Language You Aren’t Fluent In

Science is global, which means that peer review is a global activity. When Editors look for people to review manuscripts, they want to find the best people to comment on the topic – regardless of their background or primary language. While science and peer review are conducted in different languages all around the world, English has become the international language of science (for reasons we won’t go into in this post). English doesn’t just belong to people from English-speaking countries, it belongs to all scientists. For some people though, language can feel like a barrier to reviewing scientific papers.

That’s not to say that all non-native English speakers struggle with the language. Many reviewers for whom English is a second language have only ever reviewed in English and will only ever review in English and are comfortable, confident and experienced in the task. For some, reviewing in a second language is not all that different to reviewing in their native tongue. Many people who did not grow up speaking English are great English speakers, but for those who didn’t get much of their scientific training in English, language can impose an unwanted and unnecessary disadvantage.

The theme of this year’s Peer Review Week is Diversity in Peer Review, so we’ve asked the Methods in Ecology and Evolution Associate Editors for some advice on reviewing in a second language. We hope that these tips will help people who aren’t fluent in their second (or third, fourth, etc.) language to feel more confident reviewing in it. Our journal is published in English, so we’ve focused on English as a second language in this post. However, the advice should be helpful regardless of what language your reviewing in or whether you’re a native speaker.

So, here are our top tips for reviewing in a language you aren’t fluent in:

1. Ask Whether the Manuscript Makes Sense to You

Scientific writing is a specific skill. Even for people who are fluent in English, writing a scientific paper is difficult. The ability to accurately communicate what you’re thinking and lay out a logical argument that flows well doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Often authors (whether consciously or not) will bring in unnecessarily complicated language or local references. This is one of the many instances where having a reviewer with a different level of proficiency in English or from a different culture or background is a huge advantage.

Journals like Methods in Ecology and Evolution have a large international audience and many readers will not be native speakers. If the language the authors are using is unnecessarily complicated, a lot of our readers will find it hard to understand. Picking out expressions that don’t translate across international borders or phrases that will make it difficult for those who are not comfortable with English to understand the science really helps to improve manuscripts. This is often easier for reviewers who are from a different background to the authors.

2. Focus on the Science, Not the Spelling or Grammar

As a peer reviewer, you’re evaluating the science in a manuscript, not the English. ©Nic McPhee

Spelling and grammar are important and if there are errors in the writing that make the science impossible to understand it’s a big issue. However, in all manuscripts, there will be some spelling mistakes and grammatical problems. These minor errors will be corrected by the publisher if the manuscript is accepted. As a reviewer, you don’t need to worry about commenting on them.

Instead, check whether the aims are clear, the methods appropriate for those aims, the results are consistent with the methods, and the conclusions are properly derived from the results. The structure of an argument should be clear regardless of the small spelling and grammar mistakes.

3. Begin by Looking at the Title, Abstract, Figures and Tables

If you’re not feeling confident about reviewing a paper in English, it’s good to start by looking at these four elements. The language in the title and abstract should be relatively simple and should give you a good overview of what will be covered. Tables and figures generally present the information in the paper in a way that doesn’t require a strong grasp of the language. Once you’ve read these sections, you’ll have a much better idea of what the authors are trying to say. This can make it easier to make sense of the main text of the manuscript.

Using an example/figure/table to help explain your comments and recommendations can make your review easier to understand as well – especially for technical/methodological papers.

4. Break the Manuscript Down into Manageable Pieces

Breaking a manuscript into small pieces can make it easier to handle – just like chopping up a pineapple makes it easier to eat. ©Kyle McDonald

Receiving a 7000-word manuscript to review can be intimidating. Reading paragraph by paragraph and trying to understand what the point of each section is can make it much easier to evaluate it though. If you take basic notes on each paragraph (even just a few words summarising the main point) you can compare them to the framework that the authors provided in their introduction and conclusion. All three elements (your notes, the introduction and the conclusion) should match up fairly closely and make scientific sense.

When dividing a manuscript into smaller sections, try not to get stuck on individual paragraphs, sentences or phrases. If you come across, for example, a sentence you don’t completely understand, ask yourself whether you can see the point the authors are trying to make. Whether the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it’s helpful to note it in your review and then move on. This lets the Authors know that they should consider rewording that sentence without you needing to spend too much time fixating on it.

5. Summarise the Manuscript at the Beginning of Your Review

This is a good idea regardless of your proficiency in the language you’re reviewing in. It can help you to focus your thoughts and feel more confident in your opinions on the manuscript. It also demonstrates your understanding of the paper to both the Editors and the Authors.

6. Check What Language Your Spell Checker is in before You Start Writing Your Review

This is a simple one, but it’s easy to overlook. If you write in multiple languages, making sure that your spell checker and auto-complete functions are set to English can make the process of writing a review a lot easier. It’s also a good idea to read through your review a couple of times before submitting to check that it reads well and contains no missing words or typos.

7. Think about How Your Comments Could be Interpreted

For anyone writing a review, it’s important to try to make clear comments, but also collegiate, respectful ones. This is sometimes more difficult when you aren’t fully fluent in a language. It’s easier to write “method x is wrong, authors must use y” than “although I know method x has been thoroughly used, I don’t think it’s best suited in this context and it would be advisable to use method y”. Some Authors may find the first of these two options blunt and possibly even disrespectful. If you think your comments could sound harsher in English than you intend them to be, try to communicate this to the Authors and the Editor.

8. Ask for Extra Time if You Think You Might Need it

If you need more time to work on a review, contact the Editorial Office. ©Illymarry

Journals are often able to give short extensions to review deadlines. If you think it will take you a bit longer than the requested time to review a manuscript in a different language, contact the Editorial office to request an extension. We can’t speak for every journal, but at Methods in Ecology and Evolution, we’re happy to give you a little more time to fully assess the science in a manuscript.

We have a duty to provide timely decisions to Authors, but it’s often quicker to wait an extra week for a review than to go out and find a new Reviewer. And it’s always better to give a reviewer enough time to provide a thorough review.

9. Ask for Help if You’re Comfortable with the Science, but not the Language

The BES journals all encourage collaborative review. It’s a great way for researchers to learn about the review process and the extra perspective (from a supervisor, student or colleague) usually leads to better reviews. If you’re qualified to review a manuscript, but don’t feel fully confident reading the paper in English (or writing a review in English) it can be helpful to pair up with a colleague who’s more fluent than you. Always tell the Editorial Office first though.

10. If You Aren’t Sure of Something, Tell the Editors

This is another point that is applicable to every single reviewer. If there are specific sections of the manuscript that you struggled with, mention them in your confidential comments to the Editors. The Editors will be able to see if there are any issues and will have the opportunity to contact you before making a decision if necessary.

Misunderstandings in manuscripts are rarely because of lack of knowledge of the language (if there are phrases or words you don’t understand, (online) dictionaries, language discussion forums or just a google search of the usage can generally clear up any confusion – even native speakers will often have to use these resources). Regardless of the reason for the confusion though, it’s always a good idea to let the Editors know about it.

Most of the advice above is applicable to all reviewers – not just people who aren’t fluent in English. If you’re a reviewer who isn’t fully confident in your English though, we hope that the above tips are helpful and give you a little more confidence the next time that you review a manuscript.

For more guidance on reviewing, please see the BES Guide to Peer Review in Ecology and Evolution. Like all of our Guides to Better Science, it’s freely available for everyone.

A huge thank you to all of the Methods in Ecology and Evolution Associate Editors who contributed advice and comments to this post:

Andrés Baselga, Luísa Carvalheiro, Anne Chao, Pierre Durand, Torbjørn Ergon, Erica Leder, Andrés López-Sepulcre, Michael Matschiner, Satu Ramula, Daniele Silvestro and Doug Yu

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