A foreigner in Academia

A couple of days ago my Twitter timeline contained links to a letter to the journal Nature in which the authors, Vladimir Lazarev and Serhii Nazarovets, protest against dismissing of non-English references in peer review. I think it’s time to write about doing research when you’re from a non-English speaking country.

The authors of the letter write this:

It was a bibliometric evaluation of research activities at universities in Belarus and Ukraine, so some citations were inevitably in Russian. One reviewer complained that this “precludes … checking that source to determine if it does actually support the authors’ statements”. Another demanded more information in the text about the work of an internationally recognized bibliometrician, Irina Marshakova-Shaikevich, “since she writes in Russian”.

I applaud them for it and I wish I had done it myself. And it’s not only about the sentence of a reviewer wanting to check the references. It is also about almost apologising for inevitability of references in Russian. We’re so guilty of reading not only in English!

I started my publishing career in Polish. This means that I have to accept that my book on boasting will  not be read by (practically) anyone outside Poland, I also accept that it was subject to local, Polish-only, review process (which wasn’t great, but wasn’t dire). All this makes the book much less attractive from the point of view of the British RAE/REF. What I reject, however, is that just because the book is in Polish, the few good points I made in it (and, surprisingly, I did) don’t count or are invalidated because of the language in which they were made.

So, let me be clear. I haven’t written anything in Polish for years. I understand the game; I also want to be part of as large a circulation as possible, I also want to be ‘internationally refereed’ and that means writing in English. So, I do. English is now the lingua franca of academic debate – I accept that as well. I also know that quite a lot of what was and is written in Polish doesn’t go through anything resembling a rigorous peer-review process, which lowers the quality of the publications significantly. I also accept that researchers who can only read and write in Polish are missing out on important academic debates and it does show!

But all that doesn’t mean that whatever is written in Polish, or any other language for that matter, is necessarily bad and not worthy of note.  There is plenty of not-in-English scholarship which is excellent. Some of it is translated into English (e.g. Bakhtin), some of it is not (e.g. Janion). And I do wish many of my English-speaking peers, who often couldn’t write a sentence in any other language than English even if their lives depended on it, stopped pouring scorn on non-English academic output. Inability to read it has no bearing on its quality.

And so, apart from being told that whatever I wrote in Polish doesn’t exist, over the years I have been told that I shouldn’t make references to Polish publications, I should translate its titles, or explain why I refer to them.

But that’s actually small beer. So, let me tell you a story. Just after coming to the UK, I had an idea of chopping my book on boasting up and writing a couple of articles in English based on it. I hit a wall. A journal editor  told me that if I wanted to write an article on boasting based on Polish data, first and foremost, I would have to explain what’s different about Polish boasting. In other words, if I had data in English, I could simply publish an article on boasting, because I had data in Polish, I could only write about Polish boasting. English data tell us about the human universal, Polish data tell us about Poland.

I wrote a very stroppy letter to him, explaining to him how misguided was what he wrote, but he had none of it. Polish data can only be analysed as differing from the English default. Interestingly, the same happened in the next couple of journals. I gave up, the world at large has not had the opportunity to learn about a study which made me quite well-known in Polish linguistics.

I suspect some of you, my readers, think that this is a thing of the past. Please let me assure you that you would be sorely mistaken. Having to justify non-English data which are written about not as an exotic dataset contrasted with the English default, happens all the time. This statement can be nuanced, especially with reference to disciplines, but in principle it is true (in my experience). It is also the case, however, that most editors I encountered were fairly receptive to arguments and it was possible to negotiate a compromise (yes, it was) that was satisfactory to all parties. I encountered complete intransigence only a few times and it was long time ago.

And then there is the review process. There are two aspects of it. One is the Polish data which, of course, must be explained in some detail and the explanation should have a brief introduction to the country itself. After all, it is a far-away country with polar bears in the streets. Fortunately, editors tend not to want this as it would make articles too long. Still, reviewers continue making assumptions that the international audience of the journal have deep and detailed knowledge of, say, the United Kingdom, while having never heard of exotic Poland.

Now, second, I don’t know how many times I was told by anonymous reviewers that my English was crap. But I quickly discovered a pattern. If I wrote an article which placed the data or research in Poland, my English was very bad. Whenever I wrote something that didn’t identify me as Polish, problems with my English disappeared.

I once sent an article to a Very Good International Journal and after it had been accepted I was told that I had to have the article read by a native speaker. Well, I decided that the loooong time in the UK made me native enough, so I carefully went through the text. I found some infelicities, corrected them, sent the article off, saying it was corrected by a native speaker. Lo and behold, I got a letter thanking me for having the article raised to a native-speaker standard.

And then there are battles you often lose. The moment you leave the somewhat more understanding area of linguistics, keeping Polish originals is a battle. After all, ‘nobody speaks Polish’ and nobody is interested in the originals anyway. Losing one battle after another, long time ago I decided that I would insist on publishing the originals in the books and I’m very grateful my publishers accept my arguments. I am also delighted that nowadays my name is printed with the little diacritic over the ‘n’ without a murmur, 20 years ago it was a battle. Apparently, changing the ‘n’ was quite expensive.

Looking back on academic practices over the years, I am actually quite surprised with how othering they have been. I have been made an exotic researcher writing about exotic stuff more often than I care to remember. Incidentally, as much as I hate to admit it, it has sometimes worked in my favour – exotic can be good and attractive.

And yes, in case you wonder, I actually had been asked about polar bears in Poland and it was not a joke. I was also told that I couldn’t possibly compare Polish psychiatry with ‘Western’ psychiatry, as it is like comparing a qualified doctor with a shaman.  But, mercifully, at conferences, I no longer get questions such as “Oh, you’re from Poland, do you know this guy, I think his name was Peter, he might live in Szczecin?” And I don’t have to answer with “Of course, we, Poles, all know each other very well. We’re good friends, all 40 million of us.”

But I still occasionally raise eyebrows when I say that as much as I identify as Polish, I am also a British academic. Ooooooh, we don’t know about that….But my English is soooo good, for a foreigner! Sometimes, I even deserve a pat on the back! There, there!

  1. I am experincing exactly the same thing in the US, which is the very reason I decided to focus on China instead of Poland. In my field, SLA, linguistic imperialism is alive and doing well. It’s an inner circle and one has to be very calculated to be let in, if ever.

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