Publish or Perish… But What About When You Are Not A Native Speaker? by Amilton Barbosa Botelho Junior

Writing Papers… What’s The Problem?

One of the most important activities in an academic career is to publish your work. We all know it is the numbers that matter; the most valuable part of your CV is the number and quality of manuscripts published in scientific journals, defined by your H-Index. It is rule #1. Publish or you will perish in academia, and writing a scientific paper is held on a pedestal. It’s not the same as writing a tweet, a report, or a blog post (sorry, but it is true, even for me, since it is my first time!).

Every beginner or senior researcher knows this. After meeting and talking with different graduate students worldwide (from Sao Paulo, Vancouver, to Brisbane), all of us complain about the difficulties of writing. But if an English native speaker has problems, what about a non-native speaker? As a Brazilian (and we speak Portuguese, and not Brazilian or Spanish), I know how hard it is. This kind of pressure can make even the strongest researcher suffer.

The Way to Academia

When I was around 13 years old, I was the only one in my class who didn’t take English classes in private schools. It is common for young people of middle and upper social classes that their parents pay for language schools to teach English or any other language to their kids. As a result, all my friends knew English very well, while I was struggling during the classes. My grades were average.

From when I was around 15 years old, my family could afford English classes until I became a university student and I started working and paying for it myself. I noticed that my situation was bad in the undergraduate classes and job market, and experienced considerable pressure to catch up.  As is the case for many engineers, I’m good at math, but bad at learning languages. For this reason, my trajectory was painful.

Then, I decided to become a graduate student (starting with M.Sc.), and writing manuscripts become part of my daily life. Everyone in my lab told me how important it is to publish in a high-level scientific journal in our area. At the same time, nobody ever taught us how to do that. 

The pressure to publish was always present. I remember my supervisor in our year-end meetings planning with us the publications for the next year. And also requiring the manuscripts of the last twelve months. It was difficult to keep up.

The struggle to produce results and then publish made most of us depressed and anxious, and medicines, drugs, and alcohol were a few ways to suppress the pain and pressure. Furthermore, I include the feeling of loneliness.

As we have to write the manuscript of our work by ourselves, it seems that we are working alone, and not in a group. A way to solve this is asking for an help and try to do with someone. However, it is not always possible. In my case, almost all articles I have published I did on my own. As a result, I feel alone as I do my work. Or isolated. Moreover, I feel more anxious and start to drink even more alcohol as a way to relieve the pressure. I know some researchers that use drugs despite of alcohol. 

During my first months in the academic area, I tried to write my first articles in English. To be honest, I am embarrassed by them. In my second year as an M.Sc. student, I had funding to spent six months in one of the most important universities in my research field in the world, located in Canada (The University of British Columbia). To be honest, I first chose the topic to study due to the possibility of staying for a few months there and improve my English. The other possibility was Spain, and although I love soccer (Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia…) and I’d never been to Europe in my life, I didn’t really have a choice. I knew my needs and improving my English was the top of my priorities. The results were awesome: my speaking and writing improved a lot. 

Ph.D Student: And now?

Even though I received job invitations to work in the industry, I decided to start my journey to be a Doctor (or Philosophiae Doctor). I moved from my parents’ house to stay close to the university since I spent almost three hours commuting per day from there to the lab. It’s the reality of Sao Paulo for most people.

As one of the most experienced people in the lab, a lot of activities were given to me and the pressure to publish became worse. Once I got some papers published from my Master’s degree, I started to teach my research group how to write a paper for a scientific journal. And the new students started to see me differently (almost like an alien!) because of the number of papers I’d published. At the same time, the respect increased. And yet again the pressure has become painful. 

As more responsibility comes, the fear to make mistakes and fail got worse in my mind. I put a lot of pressure to do my job, and the panic to obtain bad results make me more anxious and, in some cases, depressive. Sometimes, during my research activities, I can feel a pressure on my chest due to the anxiety. This pain was not only physical, but also psychological.

For instance, the most difficult situation was in the end of 2020. Due to the pandemic, all the plans for my Ph.D. went down the drain. All decisions I made before and activities were changed. The disappointment were so big that I had no desire to work. Or do anything. This kind of pain can be reproduced in different situations.

When you’re not a native speaker, the steps to write in English get even more difficult. For non-natives, I estimate that we spend twice the time (at least) to write a paper. For researchers from countries where there is little emphasis on teaching English, it can be worse. As we have less structure and contact with native speakers, English is a problem for us. When we are applying for a job, our relative lack of experience compared to others is not considered. Yet not knowing English does not make you less of an engineer.  At the same time, we don’t have the same structure as developing countries. It makes our work arduous.

When I say that the pressure increased, it’s not because someone puts the finger in my face and forces me to publish. I want to do a good job, like anyone. And I want this a lot! My ambition to succeed results in pressure, which results in disappointment when bad news comes, or if I don’t meet expectations.

Before I became a Ph.D. student, unpublished works of our group were sent to me (students who finished their thesis and didn’t publish to journals) as a task to complete and submit to journals. I put pressure on myself to do a good job. As the results came, more work came, and more pressure. It was a never-ending cycle.

Releasing the Pressure

Since I started to live close to the university and spent less time getting to the lab, I had more time studying and working on the manuscripts. At the same time, I started to drink a few days per week to help me sleep well and relieve the pressure. Wine, beer, whisky … and I know people who use drugs as a relief. The reason? It’s easier and faster than looking for help (as therapy or mental health support).

Surely, I’m not the only one who turns to alcohol. I know some students or researchers (from juniors to seniors) worldwide that use something to reduce stress about work. And those that don’t – some of the most brilliant students I’ve known – gave up due to the pressure of academia. Although different reasons are mentioned, the pressure to write a manuscript and send it to a high-impact journal is mentioned for all. I know people from Latin America, North America, Europe, and Oceania in the same situation. No matter the culture or native language.

In the beginning of the current pandemic (between March and June), where we still didn’t know too much about the new virus, I had stay at my parents’ home since the university was closed. A way to release the sadness and anxiety was to go for a run. Usually, I ran about 5km per day. It was great for me.

On the other hand, I know a few people that called for a help of a professional to lead with the problems. Indeed, psychologists and psychiatrists works brightly. Universities should support more help to the students and researchers. Moreover, I know professors that would like help too.

With the rise of social media, that pressure continues. We can follow faster how other researchers are getting publications, and succeeding, and compare ourselves. I can imagine how people are getting hurt when compare themselves with different people in academia. 

In the social medias like ResearchGate or LinkedIn, we can see the results of the research work of our peers. If you know someone that publish more than you, or in a better quality, you can feel bad and as if you are not capable to produce enough.

I remember when I was studying a specific topic (that I prefer not tell), and use two or three good references from the same authors. Usually, the first author is who did the research and write the manuscript (at least a part of). As I consider these manuscript well-written and helpful for me, I asked about the first author to people who worked with him. And the answer I received is that there is no way this person wrote the manuscript (any single part). I was in shock. It was a surprise for me that the first author didn’t help with the manuscript elaboration. How could I compare my work, that I did every single line, with other that the person did anything? The answer is that: it’s not possible. 

I hope that after reading this, now you might know that writing a paper when your mother language is not English is hard, and all the consequences make the journey in academia even more difficult. How can we solve this problem? I’m working on it. For the meantime, knowing what others are going through is a good start.

What helped me during my journey is never give up. When I receive a decline of a submission to a journal, I want to prove to everyone that I’m capable to publish my work. Besides, I frequently asked to someone read the manuscript looking for revisions. Nowadays, since I start to supervising some master students, I become a kind of mentor and revise papers and thesis. 

In the University of Sao Paulo, there are free classes to help students in writing. This is not only to increase the number of publications, but also the quality. Most of Brazilian foundations are looking for projects with high scientific impact to the society (as well as academia and industries). For this reason, the pressure will increase and supports to us is necessary.

As for managing my anxiety around my work, for me, exercise sometimes helps. Sincerely, I probably need some help from a professional, as many of us do. Universities need to provide such support to help students, researchers and all workers. The future working with science is amazing, but it should not come at the cost of our mental health.

Amilton Barbosa Botelho Junior

Amilton Barbosa Botelho Junior is B.S. and MSc. in Chemical Engineering. Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering of the University of Sao Paulo. He has experience in the recovery of metals from mining wastes and urban mining. Since 2016, he has published more than 30 articles in scientific journals and conferences. The main topic is the development of chemical processing to obtain critical metals (such as cobalt and rare earth elements) from waste towards circular economy. He worked in the University of British Columbia (Canada) and in the University of Queensland (Australia).