Many researchers are not native English speakers but need to write research papers in English, as it is the common language for sharing ideas with other researchers worldwide. Some papers are very well-written, others are not so well-written but are still readable, while others are hard to read and really need to be improved. In recent years, more and more publishers have thus started to offer manuscript proofreading services to authors. In theory, this sounds like a good idea since it can help to improve the papers of authors and ensure that all papers are well-written before they are published. However, in this blog post, I will highlight that there is a potential conflict of interest as some of these proofreading services are aggresively pushed by publishers, and can be an important revenue stream for publishers. In particular, I will discuss the case of the IEEE.
Recently, a friend of mine submitted a manuscript to an IEEE journal. After waiting a few weeks, he received the following e-mail:
Date: (…) 2018
Dear Dr. Z.X.We are writing to you in regards to Manuscript ID XXXXXX entitled “XXXXXX” which you submitted to IEEE XXXX.Your paper was read with interest, however; the grammar needs improvement. Proper grammar is a requirement for publication in IEEE XXXX. If needed, IEEE offers a 3rd party service for language polishing, for a fee: https://www.aje.com/c/ieee (use the URL to claim a 10% discount).
Your article has been returned to your Author Center so that you can resubmit after you have improved the grammar. You will be unable to make your revisions on the originally submitted version of your manuscript. Instead, revise your manuscript using a word processing program and save it on your computer.(…)IEEE XXXX Editorial Office
It is interesting to note that this e-mail sent by the IEEE editorial office states that the “paper was read with interest” but that e-mail does not include any reviews from reviewers. Thus, it seems that the paper was not reviewed and just returned directly to authors. Besides, it is interesting that this e-mail is sent by “the IEEE XXX Editorial office” and is not signed by an editor. If the paper was not well-written, it would make sense to suggest to improve the English so that it reaches a satisfactory level. However, I have actually checked the paper and the English is OK. It is not perfect since the author is not a native speaker. Indeed, there was a few sentences in that paper that did not sound totally right in English and a few typos. But the paper was on overall readable and in my opinion acceptable in terms of English. Thus, this raises questions about the reason for suggesting that the language should still be polished. In particular, it seems that the IEEE is even refusing to send the paper to reviewers although the paper is in my opinion readable at a reasonable level.
If the IEEE affiliated language polishing service was not mentionned in the e-mail, there would not be a potential conflict of interest. But in that e-mail, it seems like the IEEE is trying to push authors to use their services and suggest to authors that otherwise the paper will not even be submitted to reviewers, which put a huge amount of pressure on authors to use the recommended language polishing service or others.
If this an isolated case? Actually, I have asked some of my colleagues, and they also received a similar e-mail from the IEEE a few months ago when submitting their paper to the same journal. I did not check the paper but here is the e-mail:
Date: Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 6:59 AM
Subject: IEEE XXXXXx- Instructions to Resubmit Manuscript
Dear Prof. XXXXX
We are writing to you in regards to XXXXX which you submitted to IEEE XXXXX.
Your paper was read with interest, however; the grammar needs improvement. Proper grammar is a requirement for publication in IEEE XXXXX. If needed, IEEE offers a 3rd party service for language polishing, for a fee: https://www.aje.com/c/ieee (use the URL to claim a 10% discount).
Your article has been returned to your Author Center so that you can resubmit after you have improved the grammar. (…)
The e-mail also did not contain reviews.
Is this only the IEEE? There are other publishers who are affiliated to language proofreading services. For example, on the website of Springer, one can see that they offer a similar service. However, by looking at the acceptance notification of papers in Springer journals received by me and my colleagues, I did not see them pushing their language services as aggressively as the IEEE in the two above examples.
Besides, in the above e-mails, the IEEE is not disclosing whether they receive money for promoting the “third party” language editing service. But it seems likely. Otherwise, why would they do it?
In this blog post, I have discussed a potential conflict of interest between the fact that some publishers like IEEE are pushing affiliated language proofreading services and likely earning money from it. I have discussed two cases related to some IEEE journal. However, it may be different for other journals and publishers. If someone has additional interesting information related to this topic, either for the IEEE or other publishers, please share in the comments below of by e-mail, and I will update the blog post.
Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor and the founder of the open-source data mining software SPMF, offering more than 110 data mining algorithms. If you like this blog, you can tweet about it and/or subscribe to my twitter account @philfv to get notified about new posts.