ELFA project

Publishing in English as an academic lingua franca


Happy Summer from the ELFA project.
© Nina Valtavirta

Few researchers would disagree that publishing in English is a necessity. The pressure to publish in high-ranking journals means publishing in English-language journals, and academics using English as a second or foreign language often find an uneven linguistic playing field. This has received a good deal of attention in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), even branching out into a designated field of English for Research Publication Purposes, or ERPP. The importance of English can’t be ignored, but an English-centered approach can fail to take note of how English functions alongside other languages used by multilingual academics.

Questions surrounding English in multilingual research settings are explored in a special issue of the Journal of English for Academic Purposes (vol. 13) entitled “Writing for publication in multilingual contexts“. Edited by Maria Kuteeva of Stockholm University and Anna Mauranen of the University of Helsinki, the special issue features six articles investigating the multilingual practices of local communities of academics in locations such as Romania, Germany, Sweden, China and Canada. The studies are primarily qualitative, exploring the researchers’ attitudes toward and experiences with the use of English for disseminating research alongside their first and additional languages (click here to view the issue’s table of contents).

These studies dealing with attitudes and experiences give insights that supplement (and are supplemented by) descriptive linguistic research. While the researchers in the special issue study experiences of using the language, other work investigates the language itself in use. For this, databases of naturally occurring English are needed that represent the English produced by academics from a variety of first-language backgrounds. Here in Helsinki, Anna Mauranen’s group has made progress on compiling the WrELFA corpus of written academic ELF (English as a lingua franca), and a companion corpus of research articles by multilingual academics – SciELF – is also underway. As these resources are naturally of interest to researchers of English as an academic lingua franca, it’s no surprise that some contributors to the JEAP special issue are also contributors to the SciELF corpus.

Getting published: experiences of multilingual academics

Mauranen’s idea behind the SciELF corpus was to collect research articles in English from authors in various countries and disciplines, but with one condition – the articles haven’t undergone language editing by an English native speaker. To collect this authentic data (and author permissions), we would need a lot of help from other researchers. One of these, Laura Muresan of the Bucharest University of Economic Studies, is providing a sample of articles in English by Romanian academics. She is also the co-author of “English for research publication and dissemination in bi-/ multiliterate environments: The case of Romanian academics” in the special issue of JEAP. Here she and Carmen Pérez-Llantada of Zaragoza University explore the views and experiences of 91 Romanian academics in using English alongside their first and additional languages.

The questionnaire data from Romania revealed mixed views toward English as an academic lingua franca. Unsurprisingly, 82% of respondents agreed that academics using English as a native language (ENL) have an advantage in this respect. Yet, only 39% of respondents felt this advantage was unfair. The authors found that respondents who self-reported high English proficiency tended to disagree with a characterisation of unfairness. Overall, 65% of those surveyed reported that they personally felt more advantaged than disadvantaged by the dominance of English for academic communication. At the same time, an unfair balance of power is still evident in the world of academic publishing. More than half of respondents (57%, see below) disagreed with the statement that international journal editors are sympathetic to difficulties faced by academics using English as an additional language.

Most of the surveyed Romanian scholars didn’t feel editors are sympathetic toward the challenges of writing in a non-native language.
Source: Muresan & Pérez-Llantada 2014: 61.

As this study deals solely with experiences and perceptions, it’s necessary to supplement this approach with studies based on authentic linguistic data. Such a study was recently published by another SciELF contributor, Pilar Mur-Dueñas of the University of Zaragoza, in a recent issue of the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. Her study follows the text histories of eight Spanish economics researchers as they submitted and revised papers in English for international journals. Mur-Dueñas analyses the comments of peer reviewers and paid language revisers alongside the original texts themselves, highlighting the kinds of linguistic features that are treated as unacceptable. As she notes, many intelligible and “correct” formulations are changed rather arbitrarily by native-speaker proofreaders, reflecting stylistic or rhetorical preferences over concern for intelligibility. In fact, the most common reformulation by revisers in the eight texts in the study was a change from passive or impersonal constructions (“This paper also presents…”) to active ones (“We also present…”). This foregrounding of personal reference has more to do with cultural preferences than what is intelligible for an international audience.

Bridging the gap: a database of academic ELF

Mur-Dueñas’ study points the way forward for research into written academic ELF – empirical research based on significant samples of academic texts by authors from various disciplines and first-language backgrounds. The SciELF corpus aims to make this research possible by compiling a database of research articles that have not undergone editing by an English native speaker. We’ve currently processed roughly 100 texts totalling more than half a million words (together with WrELFA, over 1.2 million words have been compiled). These research articles span the humanities and “hard” sciences, with authors whose first languages are Chinese, Czech, Finnish, French, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish. Collecting the texts and author permissions takes time and depends on personal networks, and we couldn’t do this without the support of numerous partners. I want to gratefully acknowledge the contributions made to the SciELF corpus by the following international partners:

With this growing database, a number of research questions can be addressed concerning academic English written by authors with first languages other than English. It’s easy enough to find examples of “non-standard” or unconventional usage in these texts, but rarely do studies go beyond this “feature spotting” to present quantitative findings from a meaningfully sized database. In particular, questions concerning phraseology or formulaic language across disciplines and first-language backgrounds require large databases to see if any broader trends can be observed. Overall, these questions are all part of a growing research interest in understanding non-native English as it’s actually used in international, multilingual lingua franca settings.

Edit 18.4.2015: updated list of corpus contributors


Kuteeva, M., & Mauranen, A. (2014) Writing for publication in multilingual contexts: An introduction to the special issue. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 13, 1-4. DOI: 10.1016/j.jeap.2013.11.002.

Mur-Dueñas, P. (2013) Spanish scholars’ research article publishing process in English-medium journals: English used as a lingua franca? Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 2 (2), 315-340. DOI: 10.1515/jelf-2013-0017.

Muresan, L., & Pérez-Llantada, C. (2014) English for research publication and dissemination in bi-/multiliterate environments: The case of Romanian academics. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 13, 53-64. DOI: 10.1016/j.jeap.2013.10.009.