Languages “a major barrier to global science”

Researchers examine implications of publishing professional science communication in languages other than English

In  an article published this week in PLOS Biology, Amano, González-Varo and Sutherland address issues relating to scientific publishing in English and other languages.  They use Google Scholar searches in 16 languages to show that 35.6% of articles published in 2014 in their field of biodiversity conservation were written in languages other than English.

Examining samples of the Spanish and Japanese articles, they note that a sizeable proportion of these were published without titles or abstracts in English, so would not be found via keyword searches in English.

The authors discuss two kinds of implications. Firstly, international reviews of science may overlook those publications that are not in English. This leaves gaps in international understanding of environmental issues, and gives disproportionate weight to research published in high-impact English-language journals.

Ignoring non-English science can cause biases and gaps in our understanding of the global environment

Amano et al. (2016)
The gaps in understanding pertain, in particular, to information on species, habitats and ecosystems that are specific to non-English speaking countries. Amano et al. use the example of papers reporting the infection of pigs with avian flu in China. Those papers were published in Chinese and were initially not noticed by the World Health Organization and other international bodies.

Similarly, the work of local field practitioners undertaking conservation activities may not be published in English but this local knowledge can be crucial in understanding environmental phenomena. This also applies to scientific data in this field. Biodiversity databases, in English, contain less data from countries where English is not widely used. The authors note, for example, that over 4 million records on species occurrence and abundance are available from the Ministry of the Environment in Japan, but in Japanese only.

Secondly, information flows from international to local communities are impeded by the drive to publish in English only. This can hinder the work of conservation practitioners in places where English is not widely spoken. The authors conducted a survey in 44 national and regional protected areas in Spain; over half of the directors who responded saw languages as a barrier to the use of scientific papers as an information source in their own work.

The authors propose a number of “multilingualization” measures to address these issues. They include more systematic use of languages other than English in international databases and research reviews, and translation of a range of scientific genres, including research articles, abstracts and lay summaries.  Another interesting proposal is for institutions to treat translation into local languages as part of their scientific outreach activities.

This article usefully highlights the local contingency of scientific knowledge and the importance of communicating in local languages as well as in the lingua franca of English.

To find out more

Amano, Tatsuya, Juan P. González-Varo and William J. Sutherland (2016) “Languages are still a major barrier to global science“, PLOS Biology, 29 December 2016.

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