Improve your impact as an international author.

Meet the Trainer: How to Improve Your Impact as an International Author

By ZM Peterson • Mar 12, 2019 Originally posted on Research Gate

When you've spent most of your professional life working on scientific research, you have plenty of opportunities to review and edit papers. Over time, I began to notice some common mistakes being made by many of my ESL clients. These mistakes go beyond spelling or grammar errors, they reflect the cultural divide that exists between Western scientists and foreign authors wishing to have their work appreciated by an English-speaking audience.

Herein, I'll point out four common mistakes I've seen from foreign authors. I'd like to preface this by stating that these mistakes do not detract from the validity of the findings presented by international authors. Rather, they illustrate a fundamental misconception of the expectations held by the most impactful Western journals. The goal is to help authors improve their presentation and improve the impact of their research.

Ambiguous Statements

One of the most common mistakes I see, and one of the most troubling, is the use of ambiguous or subjective language to describe experimental results. Results from an experiment are supported by data, and definite descriptions can be formulated based on the data. Ambiguous statements involve the use of language that makes false comparisons, or that completely ignore a comparison where one is required. Ambiguous statements could also be taken to have multiple meanings.

How do you spot an ambiguous statement? These types of statements will create more questions than they answer. While it is difficult to form a blanket rule that can be used to identify an ambiguous statement, you should examine whether your statements are specific. You should also examine whether a reader could infer incorrect information from your statement.

As an example, consider the following statement: The use of a decomposed organic binder can deteriorate the performance of the battery.

This statement raises the following questions:

  • What measurable aspect of battery performance was affected by the use of a decomposed organic binder?
  • How exactly did this physical quantity change? Did it increase or decrease?

    Here, the terms "deteriorates" and "performance" are ambiguous; they could be taken to mean absolutely anything. For example, in the parlance of battery research, this could mean "decreases the charge capacity", "increases the terminal resistance", "decreases the maximum output voltage", or any other number of statements. In particular, this statement could be taken to mean "decreases the discharge rate" or "increases the discharge rate". Note the ambiguity in whether a physical quantity increases or decreases. This arises because some studies, particularly applied and engineering studies, are based on reaching specific design goals.

    Rather than writing these types of statements, you should always aim to be as specific as possible. The use of specific language will leave no doubt in the readers mind as to how a physical quantity changed during an experiment.

    Subjective Language

    A subjective statement is one that largely represents an author's opinion while masquerading as fact. These types of statements are often written in an effort to artificially enhance the potential impact of their work. These types of statements tend to make grandiose claims as to how the results from a study will be used in the future and are often based on speculation. These statements also tend to appear informal, which is another reason they should not appear in academic papers.

    Here is an examples of a sentence that contains subjective statements: Our useful results will aid new developments in biosensors, molecular self-assembly, and drug delivery.

    This statement makes a grandiose claim regarding the applicability of their results and the applications they are bound to produce. The word "useful" wholly represents the author's opinion; it remains to be seen whether others will actually make use of these results. These types of statements must be substantiated by findings from others in the field. These statements can be substantiated with a thorough review of the literature.

    Researchers must accept that their hard work and results might not produce the types of applications they envision. They may be relegated to the encyclopedia of human knowledge, only to be recalled later by a young researcher with dreams of changing the world. Rather than write subjective statements, you should allow your results to stand on their own and speak for themselves. Desirable, useful results will be appreciated by the research community and will be cited by others as being relevant in your field of study.

    Identifying Controversy in the Literature Review

    A critical part of scientific research is identifying and articulating controversial results from the literature. It is also important to identify gaps in scientific knowledge. Many authors will perform an exhaustive literature review and will present a long list of prior results. However, simply listing out the names of authors with prior results does not provide sufficient motivation for research. I've seen many authors simply state something along the lines of "therefore, more research is needed" without substantiating their statements with results from the literature.

    This is not to say that the motivation does not exist. Instead, this is an issue with communication and articulation. To enhance communication of your work and help provide context for your results, try to address the following points:

    • Identify gaps and controversies in the research literature that your work can address.
    • You should explain how your work will address these gaps and controversies.
    • State a clear hypothesis for your readers.
    • Explain why you would expect to see certain results.
    • Clearly explain how your results contribute to the body of research, and substantiate this with references. Always use specific language, do not use subjective or ambiguous language.

      A Summary is Not a Conclusion

      From my experience, the conclusions section is possibly the most misunderstood portion of an academic paper. Many authors will simply restate their measurements in their conclusion. What is worse, many authors will copy and paste remarks from their abstract and introduction verbatim. Neither of these approaches will meet the publication standards of high-impact journals.

      While it is appropriate to spend a few sentences that summarize the focus of your study, your conclusion should go beyond summarizing your results. Your goal is to describe insights gained from your study that help drive further study in your field and increase scientific knowledge. Try to answer the following questions:

      • What do your results say about the controversies you identified in your literature review? Briefly substantiate this using your core results.
      • How do these results help drive further scientific research in your field? Do not use subjective language or mention various practical applications unless they were the explicit focus of your study.

        Final Remarks

        Perhaps the most important point to remember when writing your paper is this: an editor cannot take a poorly written paper and turn it into a high quality paper. If you send your editor a paper with ambiguous or subjective language, improper structure, and sub-standard writing, your editor will send it back to you with more comments and questions than actual revisions. Before submitting your paper for English editing, it is a good idea to request help from a colleague with strong command of the English language. They may be willing to evaluate your paper before you send it off for editing and could help determine whether you should use a translator to improve the language and structure of your paper.


        Contact us if you are interested in scheduling an Author Workshop with the author of this article. Zachariah has a decade of experience working as a scientific researcher, editor, and reviewer, and he is currently offering Author Workshops for international authors.


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