All the costs of having a common international language in science are borne by NoNES (non-native English speaking - ZF) scientists, implying unfair cooperation in obtaining a common good (i.e. a common language).
Clavero paints a somewhat lopsided picture of the costs, however.
(T)o have your publishable science published you should ask a NES (native English speaking - ZF) scientist friend to help you (bearing the risk of losing all your NES scientist friends)(.)
In Clavero’s scenario, the author is the one who is bearing all the cost: the extra time writing in a foreign language, plus the cost of alienating friends. He does not address the “cost” that a friend incurs in agreeing to help the author. I might argue that helping may not be seen by people as costs at all; as the old saying goes, “That’s what friends are for.”
Clavero would like to put much of the burden on journal editors and associated editorial staff to make sure that articles are in the best written form possible. From his letter, he does appear to have encountered many cases where English speaking editors and reviewers puts in additional time and effort to make the paper better.
In a letter in response, Guariguata and colleagues argue that the problem may not be as severe as Clavero suggests. They argue:
(T)he overall burden should not fall on the editorial teams of the journals as it is not good use of either an editor’s or reviewer’s time.
Here, I disagree somewhat. It is not just a good use of an editor’s and reviewer’s time, it is one of the things they should be expected to do.
As a reviewer myself, I do try to help authors fix wording and language issues. It often makes up most of my comments on reviews, in fact. I sometimes have to admit defeat, though, where there are just so many suggestions and corrections that I just give up. There is a point of diminishing returns.
While I accept some responsibility a reviewer, the main responsibility should reside with the authors. It shouldn’t be a secret to yourself that you didn’t grow up speaking English and don’t speak or write it on a daily basis. You should be self-aware enough to look for help. People do not become scientists by accident, after all. Researchers protesting that they have to communicate in English is little like an actor protesting that he doesn’t want to memorize lines.
That said, I do appreciate the problem that many people don’t decide they are going into scientific careers until they in their late teens or early twenties. They’re well past the stage that it’s very easy for them to learn a language. (But then, who hasn’t ignored lessons that would have helped us later, if only we’d have known?)
P.S.—I used these letters as the basis for a final exam in my biological writing class. I asked my students, “Who should bear most of the brunt for making scientific journal articles readable? The authors, editors, reviewers, or someone else?” Because I made my students write about this, it’s only fair that I do so, too.
For what it’s worth, the vast majority of my writing students thought that the authors of an article bore the most responsibility for making it readable English. A much smaller number placed the bulk of the responsibility on the journal editor. None placed the primary burden on the reviewers.
Clavero M. 2010. “Awkward wording. Rephrase”: linguistic injustice in ecological journals. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25(10): 552-553. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.07.001
Guariguata M, Sheil D, Murdiyarso, D. 2010. ‘Linguistic injustice’ is not black and white. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.11.001
Obscure geek reference: Picture of Cypher, a superhero whose power was the ability to understand all languages.