Style, tone and grammar – native speaker bias in peer reviews


Peer review is a central part of academic publication. The process of back and forth between authors and reviewers is meant, in part, to ensure the quality and novelty of articles. Many journals use what is known as a double-blind process in peer review – neither the authors nor the reviewers know each other’s names. The double-bind process is touted as a safeguard against bias, particularly gender and race biases, and to ensure a broader range of authors gets published. And, there is some research that indicates double-blind reviews do exactly this.

What kind of bias do I mean? To explain, let me start with a hypothetical (I’m a lawyer by training and we love those). A PhD student submits an article to an international journal co-authored by various supervisors. The institutional affiliation of the authors is known to the reviewers, but the names are not. Based on institutional affiliation, at least one reviewer assumes that the authors, or at least the ones who actually wrote the paper, are not native speakers of English. One or more peer reviewers then puts in the almost obligatory comments about language and needing the paper reviewed by a native speaker of English.

Really, this story is not so hypothetical since I have seen it happen repeatedly to students who visit me at the University of Iceland Center for Writing, where I am the director. I have also seen it happen with students and faculty for whom I have acted as a professional proofreader. In fact, it has happened in my own submissions to academic journals. So what, exactly, is going on here?

Well, first is a bias against what reviewers take to be non-native English. I say “take to be” on purpose here because reviewers in double-blind peer reviews have no way knowing if the writer would identify English as their native language, or one of many native languages. Instead, the reviewers make blanket assumptions about the status of the English based on institutional affiliation. Interestingly, the comments on language often come from non-native writers of English themselves, if journal publication sites and mastheads are any indication.

That leads into another bias that seems to be active in peer reviews, that is the unspoken belief that there is only one form of academic English and that it needs to be as close to the reviewer’s form as possible. Perhaps this is why we see many comments about needing help from native speakers of English coming from non-native reviewers. They are possibly less aware of the breadth of language available to those who write academic English. This may lead them to misdiagnose issues of style and tone as issues of grammar.

And that is, in my experience, largely what reviewers are reacting to in their language-related comments—style and tone. When reading over a student’s paper in the Center for Writing or as a proofreader, my job is to either point out grammar mistakes or correct them if I possibly can. I also work to give my students resources so that they can better identify their own grammar issues to become their own best editors. Despite intensive grammar work, my students and clients still get comments on their language that make it seem like the reviewer has some higher knowledge of English grammar than they do.

And let me be clear at this point: native speaker bias also assumes that all native speakers of English have the same access to and understanding of academic English. As I like to point out to my students, no one is born a native speaker, and especially not a native writer, of academic English, not even me who now makes a living helping others to develop as academic writers in English, among other languages. I urge my students to be careful in picking someone to read over their work solely based on that person’s status as a native speaker of English. Quite often, a knowledgeable non-native speaker would be a better pick.

If only journals would take as much care with picking their peer reviewers or in guiding their reviewers regarding comments on language, but few do. Instead, we have reviewers who quibble over the use of “by” versus “from” and go sentence by sentence over a work that is quite grammatically correct only to suggest changes that are either not grammatical or do not fit into the style and/or tone of the original paper. In short, they are trying to turn the original authors into themselves.

Mistaking differences in style and tone for grammar is the last bias I see over and over again in peer reviewers’ comments. Better said, this is not so much a bias as a misunderstanding of the important role that style and tone play in academic writing, and in all writing. Perhaps this is quite understandable because it is difficult to really sit with a text and try to understand what about it you dislike that is not grammatically incorrect. It takes even more work to then explain that to the authors of the original text. And, it seems, it takes even more work for reviewers to stop themselves from assuming that their preferences for style and tone are anything more than personal preferences, instead treating them like grammatical rules.

This is a pity, particularly for students. All writing is an act of expressing parts of our identities, and many students are still forming their identities as academic writers, making them less able to argue against native speaker bias in reviews. If the student is a non-native writer of English as well, the damage can be multiplied. It is a very different position to be in as a native speaker with long writing experience. What I did with my co-authors, one native speaking and one not, was to write a letter to a reviewer who practically demanded we have the article read by native speakers detailing how we would be the very people who would edit such an article.

It is also a pity for the genre. It pushes more novice writers towards the belief that there is a canonical way of expressing ourselves around academic issues and entrenches the idea of a single, standard English. Instead, we should be promoting a multitude of Englishes that fit the multitude of realities, circumstances, and topics that drive people into research and to publish.

Author Bio: Dr Randi Stebbins is Director of the University of Iceland Centre for Writing.