Writing scientific articles like a native English speaker: top ten tips for Portuguese speakers

Can you identify a single colleague who has not had a manuscript returned with the comment “needs to be reviewed by a native English speaker”? Many researchers receive this response even after translation or revision by an official translator or a native English-speaking coauthor. Over the past four years, while conducting my doctoral, and now my postdoctoral, work here in Brazil, I have been asked to both translate and help revise numerous manuscripts for my fellow Brazilian researchers. However, despite being a native English speaker and a researcher, I have found these tasks to be quite stressful at times. The truth is, just like it is one thing to write in Portuguese and another to write well in Portuguese, the same applies to writing well in English. Furthermore, not every native English speaker who writes well in English can write well for the scientific literature. Scientific English writing has its own style and rhythm, such as the use of passive voice. Passive voice is considered poor English in most forms of writing (news, novels, blogs, etc.) outside of science. The most recent version of Microsoft Office Word will even highlight passive voice as poor grammar and ask you if you want to rephrase. However, the use of passive voice is acceptable and even encouraged in some scientific writing.

Although you would expect revising an already translated paper would take less time than translating an entire manuscript, I eventually came to prefer translation. Revisions tend to take me twice as long. Online translators may be partly to blame for this phenomenon. Not only did I spend hours being frustrated by confusing phrases resulting from simple mistakes, but I also spent the majority of my time fixing the same mistakes over and over again.

For this reason, I decided to assemble a compilation of the 10 most common “errors” made by native Portuguese speakers when writing scientific papers in English. I put “errors” in quotes because many of the following tips are just that: tips, or dicas. They do not always refer to incorrect English, but rather to poor English, and they are not necessarily absolute rules. Most of these are common mistakes or poor writing habits that affect even native English speakers, so correcting them before submitting your manuscript can give you an advantage with the reviewers. It may even help you to avoid the dreaded “needs to be reviewed by a native English speaker”.

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