Language barriers still burden science, new study suggests

Today, almost every major scientific journal publishes in English. Are non-English reports falling through the cracks?

Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters
Scientists and geologists are seen during an international meeting of geological and volcanological study at the Laguna del Maule (Lagoon of Maule) in the VII region of Talca, south of Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 29, 2016. A new study from the University of Cambridge says non-English scientific papers are being overlooked.

In today’s globally connected world, language may still be a barrier to science.

Today, almost every major scientific journal prints in English – even while featuring research from all over the world. Meanwhile, new research suggests, tens of thousands of reports are being published without English translations. In a study published last week in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers argue that the permeation of English-language science has caused non-English studies to be overlooked.

“Language barriers continue to impede the global compilation and application of scientific knowledge,” lead author Tatsuya Amano, a professor of zoology at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement.

As part of their study, Dr. Amano and colleagues surveyed Google Scholar, a platform that by some estimates includes more than 100 million academic papers. They found that more than 75,000 studies on biodiversity conservation were published across 16 languages in 2014. About one third were published in non-English languages.

Of those, about 12.6 percent were published in Spanish. Another 10.3 percent were written in Portuguese, researchers found; Chinese and French accounted for 6 and 3 percent respectively. Researchers also found recent publications in Japanese, Korean, Italian, German, and Swedish – but only a few hundred per language.

“Scientific knowledge generated in the field by non-native English speakers is inevitably under-represented, particularly in the dominant English-language academic journals,” Amano said. “This potentially renders local and indigenous knowledge unavailable in English.”

In random sampling trials, researchers found that about half of non-English papers included titles or abstracts in English. The rest – about 13,000 documents – are completely unsearchable by English keywords.

“The real problem of language barriers in science is that few people have tried to solve it,” Amano said. “Native English speakers tend to assume that all the important information is available in English. But this is not true, as we show in our study.”

“On the other hand, non-native English speakers, like myself, tend to think carrying out research in English is the first priority, often ending up ignoring non-English science and its communication.”

English wasn’t always the lingua franca, or common language, of science. During the Renaissance, Latin was understood most universally by academics. Galileo, for example, translated his studies to Latin so that non-Italian scientists could follow his work.

By the early 1900s, most scientific studies were published in German. But in the post-war years, as Germany’s global influence waned, English took the lead.

Today, this linguistic dominance is widely acknowledged. In 2013, the French Parliament considered a bill that would allow public university science classes to be taught in English. Bastien Inzaurralde reported for The Christian Science Monitor:

Supporters – including two Nobel Prize winners – of the measure say it would not only make France more attractive for talented students and scholars who don’t speak French, but also help French students prepare to work in an English-speaking environment.

But doubling down on English may not be the best way to overcome the language barrier, researchers say. Instead, they argue, journals should supply translations of current scientific publications. To emphasize that point, authors included summaries of their new study in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and French.

“While we recognise the importance of a lingua franca, and the contribution of English to science, the scientific community should not assume that all important information is published in English,” Amano said.

Researchers say universities and funding institutions should encourage translations as part of “public outreach,” particularly when it comes to global trends and non-English regions.

“We should see this as an opportunity as well as a challenge,” Amano said. “Overcoming language barriers can help us achieve less biased knowledge and enhance the application of science globally.”

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