CHINA: Publishing in English creates western industry

China's adoption of English as a universal academic language, combined with western-style publishing requirements for university promotion, has led to a proliferation of foreign companies offering the nation's academics proofreading services.

For about US$350 a medium-sized article, the companies receive online drafts written for publication in an international journal. They then correct the 'Chinglish' grammar and return the copy online to the author. In the sciences, however, regardless of the quality of the research, the product may still fall short of the precision needed.

The pressure in China for publishing in English with a high level of language competence poses questions of whether a university bilingual requirement is practical and whether the additional study burden might impede advances in research.

Bilingual education in putonghua (the standard or Mandarin dialect) and English has been an elementary-through-university mandate for the last generation. The fluency of English teachers at the primary and secondary levels in China has improved greatly through the importation of native speakers for English teaching at teacher-training universities, as well as the subsequent growth in native-Chinese English teachers with solid English fluency.

But the rapid growth of Chinese universities has left little time for building specialised advanced English. For new university professors, advanced English competency is limited to the younger faculty who have spent an exchange year abroad or completed an advanced degree in an English-speaking country.

More than two decades ago, China moved away from Russian and adopted English in recognition that English would be the major lingua franca in science and technology, and would also help in international business. Publish a discovery in another language and it will likely be ignored while a researcher publishing a decade later in English will get the credit! Today, English and Chinese journals dominate university shelves.

China also adopted the American university system of professorial ranks along with the use of citation indices to evaluate faculty publication. As a result, academics are under pressure to publish in the highest ranked international journals - and that means publishing in English.

While the quality of Chinese research in many science areas is now on a par with western countries, getting papers accepted remains difficult. Although the experimental design and data are found to be solid by peer reviewers, international editors are returning manuscripts to Chinese authors suggesting they collaborate with native English-speaking researchers to clean up the 'Chinglish' - the term for the peculiar English resulting from literal translations of Chinese into English.

Prepositions such as to, for, with, from and so on are lacking in Chinese and their English usage rarely follows rules. So this requires an 'ear' for what sounds right. If you do not grow up in an English-speaking country, developing total fluency in advanced academic English is difficult.

To achieve the precise and elegant usage of English expected in internationally published papers, a Chinese scholar would probably have to study advanced English full time at the university level, taking those years away from research in their field. The national policy of kindergarten-to-college English may have to be rethought and refined if the consequence of publishing in English delays research.

Meanwhile, some western science organisations are recognising the situation facing their foreign counterparts who now need to publish in English. For instance, the American Society of Mammalogists encourages members to assist colleagues of all foreign nationalities in editing and reviewing manuscripts.

With the swing to molecular biology and abandonment of organismic biology in many western schools, fuller collaboration with Chinese universities that are maintaining the full range of biological research may be a major avenue for sustaining western biology research.

In any case, shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration on research papers provides the precision and elegance for publication that commercial grammar-checking companies currently do not provide.

*John Richard Schrock is a US entomologist and biology teacher trainer who has just returned from China. See the attached article Language Imperialism in Science.