What do you do when an editor says your paper has English language and grammar issues?

Getting a response from a journal you have submitted your paper to can be a tense moment: the decision to accept, reject, or revise is a major step in the publication process. Much of the feedback received at this step will be about the scientific content of your paper. However, in many cases a journal will also highlight that both the English language and grammar in your paper need improvement. In this post we will talk about what this means for you and our advice on how to deal with this feedback.

Do I really have a problem with English language and grammar usage?

The first thing you need to know if a journal has ever told you that your paper needs some help with English language and grammar is that you are not alone. While English is the de facto language of scientific publication, the research community is diverse and widespread, and many (if not most) researchers therefore write and publish in a foreign language. Hence, editorial comments regarding problems with English language and grammar usage are common.


It can be difficult not to take this feedback personally, as many researchers worked tremendously hard to learn English as a foreign language; when an editor says your paper has English language and grammar issues, this can feel like a personal criticism. Keep in mind, though, that scientific writing is difficult for almost everyone, even native English speakers - in fact, it is not unheard of for native English speaking researchers to be asked to revise their paper for English language and grammar issues - and writing a professional paper in a non-native language can be a significant additional hurdle.


So if you do get the disappointing feedback that your paper has these issues, try not to take it personally. A request to improve the English usage in your paper does not necessarily mean that your English is poor; rather that there is room for improvement. After all, if the editors are communicating their decision to you in English, they are confident in your ability to understand the problem and seek help to address it. We recommend reflecting on the complexity of scientific writing and the additional challenge of scientific writing in a foreign language, and accepting that, at least in this case, you could use some extra help.

What does this mean for my submission?

When an editor says that your paper has language and grammar issues, this can come as part of an invitation to revise and resubmit the paper, or as part of a decision to reject the paper. The first case is good news: the editors most likely feel that the English usage in the paper needs improvement before publication, but that it was of high enough quality for the paper to be sent out for review. Having the paper revised for English usage can then be just one part of the revisions that you are making to the paper based on the peer reviewers’ comments. If you have been invited to revise and resubmit, we strongly recommend revising the paper for content first, before having it edited for language usage, to make sure that any additional content you add to the paper will be of the same quality as the original text.


The second case, when an editor says that your paper has language and grammar issues as part of a rejection decision, can be more discouraging. If this happens, it can be helpful to review the feedback carefully to determine the relative contribution of the language usage or the scientific content to the decision. If your paper was rejected prior to being sent out for review, reading the editor’s decision letter carefully can help determine whether problems with English language and grammar were the main reason for rejection, or if there was some other reason (for example, the paper may have been out of scope for that journal, or perhaps the editor decided that the main finding was not significant enough for the impact level of the journal). If English usage was the only problem, this should be clear from the letter, which should offer you the chance to start a new submission after the paper has been revised to improve the use of English. If you are unsure, do not be afraid to the contact the editor directly to ask for clarification.


If your paper was rejected after one round of peer review, it is unlikely that language and grammar issues are the reason for the rejection. Most journals would consider it unethical to reject at this stage for language alone, which is why papers that need substantial help with English usage will most likely be rejected pre-review (as described above). If, however, the paper was rejected on scientific grounds and because of language and grammar issues, then we recommend revising the paper substantially for both content and language before submitting it to another journal. Not every journal has the same standard for English usage, but chances are that if one journal felt that your paper had language and grammar issues, others may as well; therefore, it could save you some time to seek English language help before submitting elsewhere.


You may be uncertain about how important it is to have your paper revised for English language and grammar issues prior to submission to a different journal or resubmission to the same journal; or, you may feel that it would be difficult to make all of the necessary revisions to the paper, both in terms of content and English language and grammar issues, within the timeframe set by the journal for resubmission. If this is the case, we recommend communicating directly with the editor to ask about the importance of the English language revision step, and requesting additional time if needed. It is very rare for a journal to deny a request to extend the revision deadline, so this can give you the time that you need to do any additional experiments, make revisions to the paper, and have it edited for English language usage. If you are unsure about your ability to communicate clearly with the editor in English, we recommend seeking help, perhaps from a colleague who also speaks English, and ideally a native speaker if possible. Remember that machine translation tools like Google Translate can generate some very strange results, so we do not suggest relying on these tools alone. If the language barrier seems too difficult to surmount, you can also consider finding a journal submission service, which will handle communication with the editors on your behalf.

How can I get help with English language and grammar issues?

When an editor says that your paper has language and grammar issues, whether as part of a rejection or an invitation to revise and resubmit, we recommend seeking out a professional language polishing provider to help. Choosing an English language editing service can be challenging, as there are many options available. So how do you choose the right service for you? When looking for a language polishing provider, we suggest considering the following aspects:

• Quality of work. Before you submit your paper for English language revision, ask colleagues for recommendations of companies that have provided them with excellent editing in the past. You can also look for other markers of quality: is the website professionally designed and easy to use? Does the company reply to your questions quickly and clearly? Many companies also offer a certificate of editing that can be submitted to a journal along with your revised paper, which shows that they stand by and guarantee the quality of their own work.

• Editors with a PhD in your field. For the best quality editing experience, we recommend seeking out a company that has PhD-level editors with expertise in your field. Pairing your paper with a highly qualified editor means that it will be revised by someone with a detailed knowledge of your field, including aspects such as the techniques used, sources for common equipment and reagents, and the most current and correct terms for field-specific concepts and ideas. Editors with a PhD in your field will have read, written, and edited many papers relating to similar topics, which means that they will be well-suited to revising your paper.

• Editors who are native English speakers. Crucially, your editor should speak English as a native language, and all language polishing providers should clearly state on their website whether their editors are indeed native speakers. This helps ensure that the revised text sounds like it was written by a native speaker, and will give you the confidence you need to resubmit or submit elsewhere without receiving additional comments about language and grammar issues.


In conclusion, if a journal comments on the need for English usage improvement in your paper, we recommend not taking this comment personally, but rather evaluating the relative importance of this point compared with the scientific feedback received, contacting the journal or editor for additional clarity if needed, and seeking a well-qualified language polishing service to help revise your paper to a high standard.


At Charlesworth Author Services, we are ready to help you with your publication needs, including revising your paper for English language and grammar issues if required. Get in touch with us today to see how we can help.


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