This question was asked in the Q&A session of a recent talk on the topic of scientific publishing presented by International Science Editing in China. In this blog, we look more deeply at this question and discuss why there is no simple answer.
Non-English sources may be a problem for reviewers
Reviewers are generally instructed to assess references for their accuracy, relevance, and timeliness (depending on the field), and to check the references are balanced and, ideally, readily retrievable. If the reviewer cannot read Chinese, they will not be able to do this. Reviewers may decline the invitation to review on these grounds. Or, even worse, a reviewer may accept the invitation to review and then recommend rejection because they cannot verify the sources. In principal, this is very unfair. As stated by Katinka Hesselink on an interesting debate on this topic, “Your only responsibility as a reviewer is to check that the article is scientific, relevant, and original enough. When references are valid, the language should not matter”. In a recent Nature correspondence , Lazarev and Nazarovets put forth a similar argument:
“We find it inexcusable for peer reviewers to dismiss citations to scientific papers that are not published in English … Papers should be evaluated on academic criteria, not on superficial grounds of communication.”
However, the reality is, most journals do not provide instructions to reviewers (or authors) on the citation of non-English sources and thus, you will have no guarantee how any one reviewer will react.
Non-English sources may be a problem for editors
Again, editors will view your paper with the readers in mind initially, and then with the reviewers in mind. They may have concerns that readers will not cite the article if they cannot read and verify the ideas presented therein. In addition, editors may fear there will be publication delays if they must find subject-specific reviewers who can also read Chinese.
As mentioned, few journals have an explicit policy regarding the citation of non-English materials, suggesting they are a relatively rare occurrence in English-language journals.
The Journal of Human Kinetics (a Polish journal) is one of the few journals that does provide author instructions:
“…non-English papers may be included in the references, yet only if the publication has an English abstract; the title of the original paper must be provided in English only”.
In a survey of 23 English-language epidemiology and public health journals, 22 permitted the citation of non-English sources . However, it should be noted that 67 journals were invited to participate, causing the authors to speculate that:
“A potential bias would be that those journals participating in this survey were more likely to agree with the intention of the author and the purposes of this survey while those that were sceptical declined to take part.”
In addition, one editor overtly stated their personal reservations on the issue, for reasons already discussed, i.e., “non-English references cannot be verified or accessed by the reader and it is difficult to find reviewers for non-English citations”.
Of course, there are fields of study in which non-English citations are relatively common. These typically include slow-moving fields (e.g., mathematics and palaeontology), in which relatively old references are still relevant today. Older papers were often written in languages other than English, e.g., German and French — English has only become the lingua franca of the international scientific community in recent decades.
Another exception is systematic reviews. To date, the majority of English-language systematic reviews have excluded non-English sources. However, there has been much discussion of the downsides of such language restrictions and The Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions suggests that; “whenever possible, language restrictions should be avoided”.
“There is concern that papers reporting positive results are more likely to be published in English-language journals and that papers reporting negative results are more likely to be published in non-English-language journals. This is known as “Tower of Babel” bias or “English-language” bias. If this bias is introduced, there may be an over- or underestimation of an intervention’s effectiveness, leading to inappropriate treatment decisions and suboptimal population health ”.
Minimise potential issues/delays
In the cover letter, explicitly state why many of your references are in Chinese, e.g.,
“Much original research has been done on this subject but it is only available in Chinese, therefore we give a brief overview of current research for the English-language reader.”
English abstracts and secondary sources
Where possible, include sources with English abstracts and/or secondary sources in English. Secondary sources are papers (English-language in this case) that have cited the Chinese sources you want to include.
As it may not be possible for the cited literature to be independently assessed, there will be an extra onus on you to convince the editors, reviewers, and readers that you have accurately assessed your sources. Your paper may become the secondary source in English that others can cite, and so others must be able to rely on your assessment.
Make the references easy to find
See here for a comprehensive guide on formatting the references. Consider making the most vital sections of the Chinese papers available in the supplementary materials, perhaps with an English translation.
- Lazarev SV and Nazarovets SA. Don’t dismiss citations to journals not published in English. Nature Correspondence. 2018; 556:174.
- Fung IC. Citation of non-English peer review publications–some Chinese examples. Emerging Themes in Epidemiology. 2008 Dec 1;5(1):12.
- Morrison A, Moulton K, Clark M, Polisena J, Fiander M, Mierzwinski-Urban M, Mensinkai S, Clifford T, Hutton B. English-language restriction when conducting systematic review-based meta-analyses: systematic review of published studies. Ottawa: Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health. 2009;1–7.