AI writing tools will not remove the language discrimination of HE

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Last week I received a reviewer’s comment on my (rejected) paper. “SStay away from trendy progressive words like ‘live experience’, ‘inquiry’ etc.,” he recommends, “just talk like a human being.”

The comment comes from a reviewer at a top-tier US psychology journal, where editors are expected to protect authors from such disturbing comments. Although most editors and reviewers are less sensitive to the language-related issues of English-speaking monoglots, I don’t mind admitting that I was offended by the final comment.

With such troubling comments abound, it’s no wonder that online courses teaching early-career researchers how to use generative AI for academic writing are now oversubscribed.

The promise of these tools for language improvement appeals to non-native academics for two reasons: First, because they are cheaper than language-proofing services. At Wiley, for example, a standard English language editing service costs around $1,000 (£790) for an 8,000-word article. In comparison, an all-access subscription to AI-based educational tools is $25 per month.

Second, AI bots can be trained to write in the style of the target journal audience, even in the researcher’s own writing style.

This gives me, as a non-native researcher, new possibilities: I now have the option of not just using language software programs (or bothering native English-speaking friends), but training AI bots to determine my grammar. What’s not to like?

If you thought generative AI was going to democratize access to science, you’d be wrong. In effect, these approaches perpetuate the problem of language discrimination in academia by burdening individual researchers.

Yes, the basic version of ChatGPT is free, but a subscription is required to get high-quality output. The bot increases writing time, but takes time to edit text and check for errors. So non-native researchers have to invest extra time and more dollars in fixing their papers than their native colleagues.

A recent publication in Plos one, which went viral on academic Twitter, touched on this issue. The study, which surveyed 908 environmental science researchers from different countries, found that academics with English as a second language require more time and cognitive effort to complete scientific activities. About a third of early career scientists were denied opportunities to attend conferences due to language barriers. Additional administrative burdens and psychological burdens were greatest among young scientists, and in some contexts discrimination occurred.

One way to address this problem is to provide additional resources to non-native speakers. After transferring to a university in Norway, I discovered that Norwegian universities provide a dedicated budget for language-testing services to support their researchers. PhD students also have their own budget for English proofing. Language testing is a task entrusted to language experts, the researcher should focus only on what they wrote, not how they wrote it.

Norwegian researchers can publish their papers using language services, but this does not necessarily help them become better writers in the long run. The critical thought process of article writing should always be reserved for humans. In her forthcoming book Who wrote this?, Naomi Baron highlights that the value of AI is to enhance writing, not to automate it. When humans are allowed to write in their native languages, they bring specific stylistic expressions, metaphors, and unique quirks that often enrich the writing style.

When rich countries foot the bill for language services for their researchers, they risk exacerbating the problem of language discrimination. Globally, it leaves other non-native researchers at the back of the scientific queue. To level the playing field, we need to change the context. As all social justice researchers know, language discrimination is not about changing individual skills or practices; The systemic structures that perpetuate inequality must be dismantled.

My suggestion is that we collectively agree to use AI to eliminate language discrimination. What if all higher education staff were allowed to write in the languages ​​of their choice, and special collections could be translated for readers? What if academic journals invested millions of dollars going toward open-access publishing into building AI bots that support non-native academics?

Imagine writing and reading all academic articles automatically translated from any language, formatted in the style of the target journal. There can be specialized bots for authors, reviewers and editors.

As more non-native speakers use AI bots for their scientific writing, we cannot continue language discrimination in academia. Those misguided comments from my reviewer that I “don’t seem like a man” may be helpful in the end, but only if they help academia consider the unacceptable hierarchy on which scholarly publishing is currently based.

Natalia Kukirkova is Professor of Childhood and Development at the University of Stavanger in Norway and Professor of Reading and Child Development at the Open University.

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