How to write a hypothesis

28 March 2018

How to write a hypothesis

This is a sticking point for many students. We are used to using and writing questions and statements in day to day communications, as well as reading popular media. But hypotheses (the plural of hypothesis) only rarely float across our desks. So how do we write one, and how do we know if our hypothesis is good?

Although I’m going to write about what I think, there is already some good information out there on the web, and it’s worth looking at this too: (e.g. Wikihow, Wikipedia, etc.). There’s also some dodgy stuff, so read critically.

What is a hypothesis?

A hypothesis is a statement of your research intent. It tells the reader (because just like all of your other written work, it has an audience who reads it), what you planned to do in your research. But there’s a little more to it than this. The hypothesis becomes a part of the scientific method if it is testable, and informed from previous published work on the subject.

Yes, your hypothesis must  be informed by the literature, which is why you spent so much time and effort crafting your introduction to inform your reader of the same. This is also why your hypothesis usually comes at the end of your introduction, because you spend all of the introduction telling your reader about it (see blog entry here). There’s not much point in writing more after the hypothesis, because once your reader has read that, they are ready to learn about how you went about testing it (in the Materials & Methods). The other important point to make is that the literature should dictate how you write your hypothesis, and the variables that you include. If, for example, you know that temperature is the most important variable but all of the literature suggests that it is oxygen, you can’t ignore oxygen and you should also frame your hypothesis using this variable (you can have more than one hypothesis after all!). In this case, you will also need to provide a sufficient introduction to temperature as a variable to justify its inclusion in your hypothesis. Perversely, your aim is not to prove that your idea is right, but to show that the hypothesis is wrong.

We usually try to write a hypothesis that is falsifiable: i.e. you can prove (usually using statistical tests) that it is not correct (or at least show that the likelihood that it is correct is very low). That’s why it is conventional to provide the ‘Null hypothesis’ that is the falsified version of the statement, suggesting that there is no relationship between the variables you have proposed to measure. The convention is to label this H0, while the ‘alternative hypothesis’ (the one that says your variables are related as you suggested) is written as H1. You can write you alternative hypothesis to show the directionality of your tested variables, or simply that there is a relationship.

Most importantly, your hypothesis must come first, before you do the experiment or study! Setting the hypothesis after the work is already done is fraudulent, and goes against the scientific method. Obviously, it isn’t fair to pose the hypothesis once you already know the answer. This is why there is so much emphasis put on formulating your hypothesis during your research proposal. Getting it right will determine what you do and how you test it. If you think of an extra hypothesis that would be really useful to test once you’ve already done your study, you can conduct a post hoc test, but this should have more stringent levels of statistical assessment.

Writing a hypothesis isn’t easy, but it is essential and once you’ve understood what to do, most of the rest of what you are writing for should make sense.

What a hypothesis isn’t

It is not a question and so should never have a question mark after it.

It isn’t really a simple prediction: if this then that. You will see many times on the internet that hypotheses are explained in this simple predictive framework. I say that it isn't 'really' a simple prediction because these are not good hypotheses. They lack the mechanistic and scholarly aspect of a good hypothesis, which is what we want to achieve.

A formulaic way to start writing your hypothesis:If… then… because…

Above, I emphasised that you must have introduced all the variables that you plan to use to test your hypothesis in your introduction. This usually comes in the second paragraph (see blog entry here), where you emphasise the utility of the dependent variable/s (what you are planning to measure) and your independent variable (what you will manipulate). Both of these variables should then feature in your hypothesis. Next, by paragraph four you will have identified the problem that you are interested in tackling. In addition, your introduction will provide all of the pertinent literature that has relevance to this hypothesis, giving the all important context.

A simple way to consider making your hypothesis is to adopt an “If… then… because…” construction where you add in your problem statement using your independent variable after ‘if’ and your prediction using your dependent variable after ‘then’, and finally the expected mechanism after ‘because’. Using our example above with the “If… then… because…” construction, we would say: “If environmental temperatures in which tadpoles develop are increased then tadpole development rate is faster because they follow the classic metabolism of ectotherms”. Both independent variable (temperature) and dependent variable (tadpole development rate) are present in this hypothesis, and the predicted relationship between them is clear. In addition, the causal mechanism is stated. You can watch a video about using the “If… then… because…” construction here, or read more here. I say that this is a formulaic way to start writing your hypothesis, because it usually ends up as an inelegant statement, which can be better refined for a reader. A citation for your stated mechanism might also help clarify exactly where the justification for this comes from.

A good hypothesis will often take an existing hypothesis further, to try to better refine the knowledge on a subject. Hence, it is perfectly acceptable to state that you are building on existing hypotheses (and giving the appropriate statement) when making your own.

How to evaluate your hypothesis

Once you’ve written your hypothesis, how do you decide whether or not it is good? To do this, you might think that you need plenty of experience (and yes, that does help). But really, you just need to look for the elements that are discussed above. So once you’ve written your hypothesis, try to objectively answer the questions below (for more see Bartos 1992 and here):

  1. Is there a clear prediction (if… then… statement)?
  2. Does the prediction use independent and dependent variables correctly?
  3. Is the mechanism supported by the literature?
  4. Is the hypothesis testable/falsifiable?
  5. Does the hypothesis use concise wording and precise terminology?

If your hypothesis meets all of the criteria above, then you’ve done a good job!

  Lab  Writing

Making a presentation from your research proposal

18 March 2018

Making a presentation from your research proposal

In theory, it couldn’t be easier to take your written research proposal and turn it into a presentation. Many people find presenting ideas easier than writing about them as writing is inherently difficult. On the other hand, standing up in front of a room of strangers, or worse those you know, is also a bewildering task. Essentially, you have a story to tell, but does not mean you are story telling. It means that your presentation will require you to talk continuously for your alloted period of time, and that the sentences must follow on from each other in a logical narative; i.e. a story.  

So where do you start?

Here are some simple rules to help guide you to build your presentation:

  1. One slide per minute: However many minutes you have to present, that’s your total number of slides. Don’t be tempted to slip in more.
  2. Keep the format clear: There are lots of templates available to use, but you’d do best to keep your presentation very clean and simple.
  3. Be careful with animations: You can build your slide with animations (by adding images, words or graphics). But do not flash, bounce, rotate or roll. No animated little clipart characters. No goofy cartoons – they’ll be too small for the audience to read. No sounds (unless you are talking about sounds). Your audience has seen it all before, and that’s not what they’ve come for. They have come to hear about your research proposal.
  4. Don’t be a comedian: Everyone appreciates that occasional light-hearted comment, but it is not stand-up. If you feel that you must make a joke, make only one and be ready to push on when no-one reacts. Sarcasm simply won’t be understood by the majority of your audience, so don’t bother: unless you’re a witless Brit who can’t string three or more sentences together without.

Keep to your written proposal formula

  1. You need a title slide (with your name, that of your advisor & institution)
  2. Several slides of introduction
    1. that put your study into the big picture
    2. explain variables in the context of existing literature
    3. explain the relevance of your study organisms
    4. give the context of your own study
  3. Your aims & hypotheses
  4. Methods & Materials
    1. Images of apparatus or diagrams of how apparatus are supposed to work. If you can’t find anything, draw it simply yourself.
    2. Your methods can be abbreviated. For example, you can tell the audience that you will measure your organism, but you don’t need to provide a slide of the callipers or balance (unless these are the major measurements you need).
    3. Analyses are important. Make sure that you understand how they work, otherwise you won’t be able to present them to others. Importantly, explain where each of the variables that you introduced, and explained how to measure, fit into the analyses. There shouldn’t be anything new or unexpected that pops up here.
  5. Expected results
    1. I like to see what the results might look like, even if you have to draw graphs with your own lines on it. Use arrows to show predictions under different assumptions.
  6. Budget
  7. Timeline

Slide layout

  1. Your aim is to have your audience listen to you, and only look at the slides when you indicate their relevance. 
  2. You’d be better off having a presentation without words, then your audience will listen instead of trying to read. As long as they are reading, they aren't listening. Really try to limit the words you have on any single slide (<30). Don’t have full sentences, but write just enough to remind you of what to say and so that your audience can follow when you are moving from point to point.
  3. Use bullet pointed lists if you have several points to make (Font 28 pt)
  4. If you only have words on a slide, then add a picture that will help illustrate your point. This is especially useful to illustrate your organism. At the same time, don’t have anything on a slide that has no meaning or relevance. Make sure that any illustration is large enough for your audience to see and understand what it is that you are trying to show.
  5. Everything on your slide must be mentioned in your presentation, so remove anything that becomes irrelevant to your story when you practice.
  6. Tables: you are unlikely to have large complex tables in a presentation, but presenting raw data or small words in a table is a way to lose your audience. Make your point in another way.
  7. Use citations (these can go in smaller font 20 pt). I like to cut out the title & authors of the paper from the pdf and show it on the slide.
  8. If you can, have some banner that states where you are in your presentation (e.g. Methods, or 5 of 13). It helps members of the audience who might have been daydreaming.

Practice, practice, practice

  1. It can’t be said enough that you must practice your presentation. Do it in front of a mirror in your bathroom. In front of your friends. It's the best way of making sure you'll do a good job.
  2. If you can't remember what you need to say, write flash cards with prompts. Include the text on your slide and expand. When you learn what’s on the cards, relate it to what’s on the slide so that you can look at the slides and get enough hints on what to say. Don’t bring flashcards with you to your talk. Instead be confident enough that you know them front to back and back to front.
  3. Practice with a pointer and slide advancer (or whatever you will use in the presentation). You should be pointing out to your audience what you have on your slides; use the pointer to do this.
  4. Avoid taking anything with you that you might fiddle with.



  Lab  Writing

Why critical reading is critical for your writing

07 February 2018

Why critical reading is critical for your writing

It is hard to emphasise exactly how important your reading will be, when it comes to your writing. If you are sitting with a blank page in front of you and feel that you have nothing to draw on, then think again. All of the reading that you have done to get to this point has already helped you more than you think. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere (formula writing blog) your chapter or manuscript is likely to resemble the formula that many others already follow, and standing on the shoulders of those giants (citation blog) will help you again. But it’s possible that your reading isn’t helpful if you aren’t being sufficiently critical.

When you read, it’s worth making all sorts of comments about what you’re reading. Of course you should be trying to follow the story that the authors are trying to tell, but you should also be using it as an opportunity to learn tips and tricks of writing. Once you are actively writing, and I’d suggest that this should have been right from the very beginning of your studies, you should be actively thinking about how the authors are writing. Are they writing well? Are parts written poorly? Then the critical part is to cogitate, albeit briefly: what works, what doesn’t and why.

When I started reading papers, I made photocopies (1 sided was as sophisticated as it got) from volumes of books and made notes in pencil on back and front of those pages as I read. I understand that most of you will be working on pdfs which offer possibilities to add notes in text boxes that go alongside. I question whether the cognitive advantages that you get from writing by hand will be achieved by typing, and if I ever find out I’ll link to this blog. But I did learn many years back in my psychology classes at Liverpool University that making handwritten notes on what you read will help build them into your memory. Thus, if you make notes on style, you are likely to remember them in the same way that you remember the paper and its contents. An alternative to typing everything is to make notes in a notebook. That way you get the advantage of building your memory with your own writing, and you can easily find everything in the same place when you forget where you read the fascinating insight.

 It’s important to emphasise that you should not copy and paste parts of someone’s paper that you like. It’s easy to do, but any copying could be your undoing if you later forget and paste your ‘notes’ into your manuscript. It’s so easy to plagiarise like this that the only way to really avoid it is by being very strict with yourself. Making notes by hand will force you to look away from the written text while you write, and you’ll be unlikely to inadvertently copy anything. The advantages of writing notes by hand then make it greatly advantageous to restricting yourself to your computer (tablet or cell!).

 So how should you read critically in order to help with your writing? I’d suggest that this is as simple as highlighting or making a quick note each time you see something that you like, or dislike. I used to underline text in pencil, and then make an illegible comment in the margin. What was singled out? For example, instead of using a taxonomic list (I don’t like lists) and long citation string to describe lots of different studies that had previously made the same point, a co-author (in a recent review study) organised them all into the same categories we were presenting in a review. The result was that the reader was reminded of our categories at the same time as seeing how well others had already covered these same topics. Another example is the way in which one of my students imaginatively linked the subjects between their paragraphs (I do like links). Lastly, it may be a theme that the author manages to develop over several paragraphs or pages, but if you’ve spotted what it is that you like, write it down and commit it to memory. The very fact that you start to see things in other people’s writing that you like and admire means that you’ve managed to start reading critically. Keep this up, and it will help your writing no end as you open up your mind to critical reading.

 You don’t have to restrict yourself in what you can learn while reading other people’s papers. Think about the stages in writing a paragraph (blog entry here). Look at the paragraphs you are reading and see if you can spot the subject and summary sentences. Maybe they are absent from the entire paper, or maybe they are present in every paragraph. Does it help enhance the readability of the paper? What about the times when authors break the rules? Can you see in your reading that the majority of authors follow rules? Do they follow the formula? What is the power in shaking it all up? If it works, try and analyse why it works. Then you will be reading critically.

What if I’m having problems recognising anything good or bad in what I read?

It’s going to be hard for me to teach you how to read and think at the same time. A little like walking and chewing gum, it comes with experience. And if you do fall over, stop chewing for a while and wait until you’ve got into your stride before having another go. Thinking is all part of the reading process, and while I agree that it might be hard to think on multiple levels while you read, it is possible. For example, consider what other worthy things you’ve thought about while reading this blog. If you’ve not stopped to check your phone, or think about eating or drinking something, well done. It might be worth creating an atmosphere with less other stimulants while you read. If you only have your reading material and notebook, you’ll be able to concentrate all of your thinking on them instead of getting distracted.

 There is also a possibility that you are struggling to get insight with your reading because English isn’t your first language. The subtleties of some of the usage of English may be passing you by. Because of the large number of words, it is possible to write something in English in many different ways. The overall aim is to convey the largest amount of information possible in the smallest number of words, while enhancing the context, meaning and readability. It’s not easy, but the only way you’ll ever get good is by starting, and reading and writing as much as possible.

 If you are still struggling, a really good way forward is to start a journal club with your colleagues. It is probable that you aren’t the only one who is having difficulties. There may already be a journal club in your institution which may (or may not) be a good place to go. What you do need is a safe space in which you aren’t afraid to say when you don’t understand. Think of it as a book club for scientific papers. After all, it may be that no-one understands and the paper is badly written. Alternatively, it can be that someone is able to help you quickly and easily. They can then give you extra insights into how and why they think the author is crafting their paper. This will then help you with your reading as well as your writing.

  Lab  Writing

Ending my time as AJH editor

31 December 2017

Reflections on editing African Journal of Herpetology 2009-2017

Today is my last day as editor of African Journal of Herpetology. In this blog post, I reflect on 9 years of being editor in chief.

In 2009, I had already published 37 papers so had a pretty good idea of the author side of the publishing game. I had been outraged at decisions that I felt had been unfair, surprised at others which I had felt were too easy, and often mystified at the rejection without review for manuscripts that I had prepared for journals. And when reviewers disagreed about my manuscripts, why did the editor came down on the side of rejecting or calling for major revisions? In essence, what I didn’t know was how editors made their decisions.

Don Broadley started the Journal of the Herpetological Association of Africa in 1965 and edited it for 20 years. The name changed to African Journal of Herpetology in 1996 with many prestigious names in African herpetology having been editors (see Measey 2011 for a detailed retrospective). I had submitted manuscripts that had been both rejected and accepted under two different editors. The editor in 2008 was Alex Flemming who had taken over from Graham Alexander in 2006 but had already resigned so that the Herpetological Association of Africa (HAA) committee was looking for a replacement editor. I realised that this was an opportunity I had been looking for and volunteered. I was proposed and in the absence of any other interest was made editor.

I have already written about the huge workload that I took on at that time not only editing, but also publishing the journal (you can find that blog entry here). Together with that added workload, I had the dubious honour of typesetting a manuscript of my own, already accepted by Alex Flemming (Ngawa et al 2009). The decision to hand over the publishing to Taylor & Francis was taken after long discussions with the HAA committee, but finally resulted in Volume 59 issue 1 (see cover above). One of the enjoyable tasks I undertook was to redesign the journal logo. The old journals carried a map of Africa with political boundaries, so I decided to retain the theme but replace politics with outlines of herps. I selected images representing as many groups of herps as I could (yes - there is a caecilian covering much of Algeria and an amphisbaenian in Namibia), and drew simple outlines around them. It was fun to do and I was proud of the result, and surprised when I received complaints from HAA members that they preferred the old version. But I shouldn't have been surprised as there will always be those who don't like change.

Of huge significance to my life as editor was the move to an editorial online platform which allowed simple tracking of manuscripts in which both Associate Editors and I could visualise the peer review process. Trying to maintain a personal, professional and editorial inbox all in the same place was quite a challenge, and so the editorial online platform was very welcome.

Acting as editor for my own manuscripts

Early on, I had to make a decision about what to do when I wanted to submit my own manuscripts to AJH, or if I was a co-author. The conflict of interest was clear and my decision was to have any such manuscripts handled by a designated Associate Editor and to recuse myself from the review and decision making process. I was very strict with this, even though it resulted in one unhappy episode when a review for a manuscript I had submitted was withheld until a rival paper had been submitted, accepted and published in another journal. My co-authors felt particularly unhappy that our paper had spent so long in review. I felt let down by the Associate Editor who had allowed the reviewer to sit with our manuscript for months.

Policies old and new

This was not the only policy decision that I took for AJH. I decided on a double-blind peer review process. In retrospect I still think that this was a good decision, although many authors appeared incapable of removing their names from a manuscript, and persuading them to do so caused a surprising amount of delay. African Herpetology is a small world, and I didn’t really think that reviewers would not guess who senior authors were for most of the papers. However, there was evidence at the time that women authors could be disadvantaged by open peer-review (Budden et al 2008), and I didn’t want this to happen to any of our student authors. The other option would have been to have both reviewers and authors revealed, but this seemed less likely to be workable as anonymous reviewers were already hard to come by. Occasionally, reviewers would insist that their anonymity be waived. Although noble, this would have been against the spirit of double-blind reviewing and so reviewer names were systematically removed. Thus, double-blind review became (and remains) a headache for the editorial process, but one that I think is worth keeping, even though authors and reviewers alike couldn’t follow instructions.

The inability of especially authors to follow comprehensive instructions was perhaps the major theme that ran through my time as editor of AJH. Early on in the process, I revised the Instructions to Authors, making it as comprehensive as I could. I’ve never been someone who enjoys formatting manuscripts for a particular journal style, and so did not insist that manuscripts adhered to the peculiar referencing style of AJH on first submission. I was also happy for this first submission to have embedded figures and tables. However, it isn’t possible to submit such files to the publishers, and if the manuscript passed the first round of reviewing, formatting of text and files would need to be done by the authors. Many found this difficult and producing the figures in an acceptable format appears particularly problematic for many authors. Some seemed to think that this was something that the editor would do for them!

AJH received many manuscripts that were outside its scope: African herpetology. The instructions to authors couldn’t have been more explicit in this regard and I do wonder how often some authors consult them at all. It would be nice to think that being a ‘chancer’ in this respect might have a pay-off somewhere down the line. However, one fault of the editorial platform is that it takes a very long time to enter all the meta-data required for the publisher to place accepted manuscripts online. Authors, especially older authors, grumble about this a lot, but it is a reality of modern publishing. More and more meta-data is expected to be displayed separately to the printed paper, and this requires that authors enter it. That they do this on initial submission means a whole lot of work when the scope of the journal is completely wrong, thus I don't see any pay-off for being a chancer in this case.

Another policy change occurred in 2013 when AJH moved to use ZooBank to safeguard against taxonomic theft. You can read more about that change here.

AJH for African herpetologists

I also wanted to encourage authors from more countries in Africa to submit their work to the journal. Although I didn't get the numbers of manuscripts I would have wanted, the journal did see an increase in the number of papers published from authors outside of southern Africa. More recently, the journal has published a number of papers from north Africa, including the first paper in AJH on African salamanders. 

Thus in my time as editor, AJH published on all three Orders of Amphibia: Anura, Gymnophiona and Caudata, as well as a lot of papers on reptiles.

How easy did it turn out to make decisions?

Decisions were much easier than one might think. For the majority manuscripts that were sent out to review, the reviewers did a good job of assessing the worthiness of publication. The difference between minor and major revisions was determined by whether or not another review was likely to be needed on resubmission. My suggestion to Associate Editors was that manuscripts that had already received a decision of Minor Revision shouldn’t be sent out to review again unless something major had changed. Probably the most difficult decisions were where I could see that useful data had likely been collected, but the manuscript lacked pertinent detail to know whether or not it was ever likely to be accepted. The decision to Reject and Resubmit often results in a great amount of time for the Associate Editor involved to wade through poorly written manuscripts. Reviewers were also burdened. However, in some cases, authors did eventually publish their work in the journal and these were sometimes good additions to the literature that would otherwise have been lost.

Another policy was to prevent more than 2 rounds of review. It can be very frustrating for authors to go through multiple rounds of peer review, especially if additional reviewers are brought in on later rounds as they inevitably have new comments. My policy was that once a paper had received two decisions as Major to Minor Revisions, the third submission should be handled by the Associate Editor, and not sent out to review again. For the most part, I think this policy worked well. There were, and always will be, exceptions to any such editorial procedure. 

The peer in peer review

During my time as editor, I co-authored an editorial that appeared in many of the world's herpetological journals: The 'peer' in 'Peer Review'. The basis of this editorial is something that I'm sure all editors are finding, that increasingly our colleagues are all too happy to turn down conducting peer reviews. Sadly, this is not an affliction of only herpetological journals, and I see the same problems in my work editing for PeerJ. I find it especially distressing when the peers themselves are authors who rely on the process of peer review for their publications. While we can't always conduct every review we are asked to do, we can make the effort at least to reply and make a suggestion of another reviewer to the editor. 

Should everyone be an editor at least once?

I do feel that everyone should participate in the peer-review process. You should expect to review something equal to the work that you produce for other reviewers. The role of editor is a massive burden on top of reviewing. Some of this is carried by Associate Editors who I found did a sterling job of helping authors get their manuscripts published. If you feel inclined to become an editor then you should volunteer to become an Associate Editor for a set period. Ask up front how many manuscripts you’ll be asked to handle each year and what turn-around time the editor expects. Do this before you sign up to be an editor, as it’ll give you most of the information you need before you decide.

Personal happiness

In July 2013 a would be author wrote to inquire whether her research on fossil African frogs would be appropriate for AJH. I responded positively and also that I had a keen interest in the subject. Thalassa and I met up to talk about it later in the year. Unexpectedly, it transpired that editing the journal had led directly to me meeting my wife. We married in December 2016 (see blog post here). It's not something that I would have predicted when I took on the job back in 2009.

There has been more happiness as editor of AJH. I have headed a team which has helped many first time authors get their work publised in a scientific journal. The team work of associate editors and peer reviewers cannot be underestimated and has led to the direct improvement of every manuscript that AJH has published in my time as editor. I am very grateful for all of the work that associate editors (past and present) have put into the journal. I am thankful also for all of the authors that have chosen to submit their work to the journal.

It’s all about helping authors

I am happy that in my time as editor of AJH I’ve been able to contribute to helping many authors produce decent peer review publications. The team of Associate Editors that I’ve been privileged to work with has always managed to assist authors produce something better. Most reviews have been constructive and in the spirit that we all benefit from good literature.

Read editorial reports published in African Herp News:

Measey, J. (2017) African journal of herpetology editor’s report 2017. African Herp News 64: 4-6. pdf

Measey, J. (2015) African Journal of Herpetology Editor’s report. African Herp News 62: 6-8. pdf

Measey, J. (2013) Taxonomic publishing, vandalism and best practice: African Journal of Herpetology makes changes that will safeguard authors. African Herp News 60: 2-4. pdf

Measey, J. (2013) Journal Editor’s report. African Herp News  59: 8-10. pdf

Measey, J. (2011) Journal Editor’s report. African Herp News 53: 5-7. pdf

  Lab  Writing

A 'native English speaker' is not what you need

05 December 2017

A 'native English speaker' is not what you need! 

This blog is inspired by one of my 'pet hates' that editors (especially non-English speaking editors) so regularly come up with. In my experience, having advice from a 'native English speaker' is no guarantee to getting a well written manuscript. 

Most of the world’s scientists did not grow up speaking English. Yet, rightly or wrongly, English is the language in which science is currently written. So, if English isn’t your mother tongue, should you expect to receive help during peer review?

Should you expect to receive help with your English when you submit a manuscript?

Perhaps I should start from the outset by stating that English is my mother tongue, and that I have spent many hours correcting the language of colleagues for whom it wasn’t. However, most of these hours were spent when I was a postgraduate student or postdoc. I no longer think that correcting English is my role either as an editor, reviewer or as a supervisor.

I did not study English, and would be the first to admit that my grasp of grammar and syntax is by no means perfect. I have read enough correct English to know when something is incorrect, but that doesn’t mean that I know how to correct it. I have spent many long hours trying to decode what others have written, and in some cases this has involved me re-writing entire manuscripts. I still do this as a co-author, although I do remember asking one colleague to please send any further drafts in their native Spanish as it would be easier to translate than it would be to re-write.

The time component is at the crux of my reasoning why, as an editor, reviewer and supervisor, I will not provide an English language service. It is both a time consuming and an unsatisfying experience. We all have our own voice (see blog here), and correcting while maintaining other people’s voices is a painstaking task. There’s an entire profession that specialises in this (think translator). These days there are also services available from publishers to non-English authors to help them correct their English.

In addition, there turns out to be research suggesting why peer review is not the best way to improve writing (Shashok 2008). Peer review works much better at screening technical content than it does at improving the communication of that content. 

Given that I’m not going to correct your English, what remarks would you expect me to make when reviewing a poorly written manuscript?

No matter how you might hope that it isn’t true, a poorly written manuscript will not get a good review. If your reviewer is struggling to understand what you have written, this becomes the overall impression that they will likely pass onto the handling editor. I try to separate my difficulties with English from my review of the science. But this isn’t always possible. Frequently, a poorly written manuscript will mean that I won’t be able to understand why the research was undertaken, what was done or what it means. This is bound to impact the review negatively.

The more I struggle to read, the more negative the review becomes. I see this as inevitable. What shocks me is that some senior researchers consider it to be their right to submit poorly written manuscripts and have reviewers or editors correct them (if you don’t believe me, see here). Worse, I’ve received manuscripts that are co-authored by people I know are native English speakers, but are full of glaring mistakes that appear never to have been checked. For me, this violates the terms that all authors have approved the final manuscript.

So what will I do to help?

Normally, I will highlight poorly written text. If there are just a handful of places, I will report these as minor corrections and there is unlikely to be any comment about English. If there are many (>15) you will probably get your manuscript back with these highlights. If there are more than 20 in the abstract (and I have seen worse), then I will give up even highlighting, but still carry on making an effort to read the manuscript. There have, however, been times when I’ve not been able to finish.

Being a native English speaker, am I above having people complain about my English?

Sadly, no. I do get it wrong, and my English can often be improved. I’m always happy to receive help, and see it as a sign of how I can improve clarity of a manuscript. However, I hope that my manuscript are never so poorly written that a reviewer or editor cannot make sense of them. So it is a matter of degrees.

Do you have to have a ‘native English speaker’ check your work?

No. There are many people who are not native English speakers who write far better than I do. It’s a ‘pet hate’ of mine that reviewers and editors insist that a manuscript must be corrected by a ‘native English speaker’. I’ve seen so many very poorly written essays, theses and manuscript written by native English speakers that I know that having one correct your manuscript is unlikely to be of much help, unless they themselves are good writers.

Being a ‘native English speaker’ doesn’t automatically qualify you to write well, edit well or do any of the things that non-English speaking editors think that it does.

That non-English speaking editors often comment that a ‘native English speaker’ should read my text, simply underlines the problem that many editors themselves are incapable of knowing whether or not something is well written. 

So if not a native English speaker, who should do it?

Anyone you know who writes good English and is willing to help you. One option is the service offered by AuthorAID: http://www.authoraid.info/en/ Using AuthorAID, you can find a long term mentor who will help you with your English. You can read more about this approach here (Freeman & Robbins 2006).

Failing that, I’m afraid that the best route will be to pay for help. 

  Lab  Writing