The Struggle Is Real - Surviving in an English-Speaking Scientific World

October 29, 2019 Susanne Gaertner

According to the UNESCO Science report, in 2013 there were 7.8 million full-time equivalent researchers worldwide and the number of students pursuing degrees outside of their native countries was 4.1 million with this trend on the rise. So, it's obvious that international co-operation is key for the future of science and science is largely conducted in English-- no matter where researchers are from. This poses an additional challenge to researchers. Many struggle to express their findings in English and articles are often rejected due to poor language skills. So, does research limit itself by presenting barriers to non-native speakers of English? And if English is not your mother tongue, are you automatically at a disadvantage?

We recently posed  these and other questions to three researchers who share their own experiences below

Wael IskandarDr. Wael Iskandar holds a bachelor’s degree in Sciences from Lebanese University, Lebanon and a PhD in Physics from University of Caen Normandy, France. He is currently a Post-Doc scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, USA. His research involves studying chemical reaction and molecular dynamics using momentum imaging spectroscopy. His interests include geopolitics, economy, and climate change.


Francesco-RiaFrancesco Ria holds a master’s degree in Sub-nuclear Physics from the University of Lecce, Italy in 2007 and got his Doctor of Medical Physics degree in 2014 from the University of Milano, Italy.

He worked as cyclotron manager for a radiopharmaceutical company and as a Medical Physicist in Italy. In September 2015 he moved to Duke University (Durham, NC) where he is currently working as a senior research associate in the Radiology department. His research activities are related to study and evaluation of CT performances in terms of radiation dose, image quality, and risk assessment


Weiye XuWeiye Xu holds a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Science and Technology from Shandong Normal University, Jinan, Shandong, China. He received his PhD in Nuclear Energy Science and Engineering from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, in 2017. Now he is an assistant professor at the Institute of Plasma Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hefei, Anhui, China. His research interests include high-power microwave heating technology for plasma, electronic technology, electromagnetic field theory, and microwave technology. 

Q: Does research limit itself by having a single scientific language?

Xu:   To some extent, yes, some editors are biased against authors whose mother tongue is not English, especially when these authors are from developing countries. I once submitted a paper to a journal published in the United States, and after more than a year, the manuscript had not made any progress. I sent some emails to inquire about the status of my paper, and usually a month later the editor replied and told me that I needed to wait patiently. On the contrary, one of my friends is currently doing research in Europe (note: many Europeans speak English very well). He contributed to the same journal many times (his papers usually have collaborators from Europe), and the papers usually progressed within one month.  In fact, non-English-speaking authors also have many excellent papers. So, the research limits itself by excluding non-native English speakers to some extent.

Iskandar: Research does not exclude non-native speakers. Any researchers can perform and explain their findings in any language they feel comfortable communicating with. There are always local journals and local conferences to communicate research findings in a language different than English. However, this limits the reach to the scientific community worldwide and slows down scientific progress. In contrast, research is limiting itself by having a single scientific language. The downside of doing my research in a single language is that I don’t even know how I would give a talk or discuss my work in my native language. It would take a lot of effort to find the right wording and terms to describe my research. In my opinion, that makes science communication less diverse.

Ria: I do not think that writing in English is a limitation for non-native English speakers. Writing an article is a challenge in any language, but I think English is a quite suitable language for scientific writing. English sounds much better in active form and it can help to better write articles from a reader’s perspective. Furthermore, it is not possible to do research without studying the scientific literature and all the relevant articles in any fields are in English. Reading and writing are part of the same process and knowing English is an essential skill for all researchers. If a limitation exists, I think it’s more related to oral communication. Meetings and conferences request great oral presentation skills and using a different language can be a great obstacle. Practice and time can help.

Q: Is there still a big disadvantage for those whose mother tongue is not English?

Iskandar: There are many disadvantages for those whose mother tongue is not English. The language barrier can prevent someone from attending international conferences, from publishing in international journals or from performing research in an institution outside their home country. For example, some authors find themselves obliged to use an editing service in order to be able to publish their papers in English which increases the publishing cost for researchers. Others struggle listening to a scientific talk or reading papers in English even if they are fluent English speakers. Some students decline to pursue a PhD outside their home country simply because they feel uncomfortable communicating in English. All that puts an extra challenge on non-native English speakers doing research.

Ria: There is a disadvantage for those whose mother tongue is not English. Writing, reading, listening, talking, require more time and effort. But the real disadvantage is related to bureaucracy and immigration policies. Even in the modern era, it is very hard, time-consuming, and sometimes humiliating, to go through immigration policies in a different country. And sometimes the requests from the immigration offices around the World are a bit preposterous. For instance, as an immigrant, I personally waste a lot of time and energy to try to prove to the local immigration office that the purpose of my stay is to conducting research.

Q: What are/were your biggest obstacles in terms of science, language, and culture?

Xu: I think my biggest obstacle is the cultural difference between the East and the West. Editors in Western countries may be more inclined to accept and review articles written by those from their own culture.

Ria: To me the biggest obstacles were and are still related to culture. In my country of origin, it is not normal that a boss asks about what the personal ambition and aspiration of his mentee are. In the USA, instead, this is the standard, and the first time I was asked about it I was a bit speechless.

In addition, different cultures manage conflict and negotiation differently. For Italians, like me, to have an argument with a relative or a co-worker shows that people really care about the job and the topic. In the USA, instead, having an argument is considered almost rude. Also, in some countries, it is considered inappropriate to say “no” to something. And once a co-worker said “yes” to my proposal even though he did not agree with me. However, his “yes” was only a courtesy because he performed the project his own way despite his theoretical agreement to my proposal. Very frustrating at the beginning.

Q: Beside all the issues and problems, are there any benefits of having one scientific language-particularly in regards to interdisciplinary research?

Iskandar: The positive side of having one scientific language is that it makes the whole endeavor more efficient and productive. It would be hard to conduct science in many languages because a lot of knowledge would be lost and that would slow new discoveries in science. The other point is that researchers have to build up a universal vocabulary in English adapted to their discipline. This infrastructure of scientific vocabulary makes it easier for scientists to communicate their research to peers and to the world.

Most research teams are multinational and collaborate with multidisciplinary scientists; therefore, everyone on that team and the resulting collaboration benefits from the usage of common language and vocabulary to explain their research findings. Imagine if this was not the case, the interdisciplinary project would certainly fail due to poor communication infrastructure.

Xu: Yes, there are benefits of having one scientific language. For example, scientists all over the world can participate in scientific exchanges without language barriers; it’s conducive to scientific and technological cooperation among people from different countries. It’s also conducive to the development of multidisciplinary fields.


Q: What kind of support would you like to see from institutions, other researchers or publishers?

Ria: Long term scenario: public institutions around the world should promote the study of English beginning in elementary school: children learn much faster than adults. Several countries in Europe started this practice decades ago (Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, etc.) and now everybody speaks English very fluently in those countries.

Short term: I think that publishers and institutions could promote journal club style meetings with researchers. It could be a good way to improve English communication skills without the pressure of an official conference or meeting.

Xu: I hope that institutions can give us more freedom of scientific research and allow for failure.

In recent years, collaborative research has gradually become the mainstay in knowledge production. I believe that is partly due to the development of team science, and partly due to discrimination in the submission of papers. Submissions from non-English authors have a lower acceptance rate, with the result that more published papers appear to be done based on international cooperation. I hope that researchers can strengthen their true academic exchanges and communication, not just superficial cooperation. I hope publishers encourage their editors to eliminate prejudice and treat contributors from any country fairly. This will be conducive to the spread and progress of science.

Iskandar: A lot has been done to support international students and researchers to face the language barrier challenge in the past decade, but still more steps need to be taken. A mentoring program can be created if there is no such program in institutions to help international students and researchers to acclimate themselves in terms of the culture inside the institution as well the culture of the local society. The institution needs to keep supporting international collaborative work and provide English-language training for students. Supervisors need to give more time assisting students to speak and write for their specific disciplines. Publishers can provide editing services for authors as well as online training on how to write papers in English for their journals.

Thanks to Wael, Francesco and Weiye for their perspectives. Are you a non-native English speaker conducting research? Share your own experiences in the comments below.

About the Author

Susanne Gaertner

Research Marketing, Wiley // Susanne is a Marketing Manager working in the Customer Marketing team for Wiley’s Research business.

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