Languages still a major barrier to global science, new research finds

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English is now considered the common language, or 'lingua franca', of global science. All major scientific journals seemingly publish in English, despite the fact that their pages contain research from across the globe.

However, a new study suggests that over a third of new scientific reports are published in languages other than English, which can result in these findings being overlooked - contributing to biases in our understanding.

As well as the international community missing important science, language hinders new findings getting through to practitioners in the field say researchers from the University of Cambridge.

They argue that whenever science is only published in one language, including solely in English, barriers to the transfer of knowledge are created.

The Cambridge researchers call on scientific journals to publish basic summaries of a study's key findings in multiple languages, and universities and funding bodies to encourage translations as part of their 'outreach' evaluation criteria.

"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," says Dr Tatsuya Amano from Cambridge's Department of Zoology.

"Language barriers continue to impede the global compilation and application of ."

The researchers point out an imbalance in knowledge transfer in countries where English is not the mother tongue: "much scientific knowledge that has originated there and elsewhere is available only in English and not in their local languages."

This is a particular problem in subjects where both local expertise and implementation is vital - such as environmental sciences.

As part of the study, published today in the journal PLOS Biology, those in charge of Spain's protected natural areas were surveyed. Over half the respondents identified language as an obstacle to using the latest science for habitat management.

The Cambridge team also conducted a litmus test of language use in science. They surveyed the web platform Google Scholar - one of the largest public repositories of scientific documents - in a total of 16 languages for studies relating to biodiversity conservation published during a single year, 2014.

Of the over 75,000 documents, including journal articles, books and theses, some 35.6% were not in English. Of these, the majority was in Spanish (12.6%) or Portuguese (10.3%). Simplified Chinese made up 6%, and 3% were in French.

The researchers also found thousands of newly published documents in other languages, including several hundred each in Italian, German, Japanese, Korean and Swedish.

Random sampling showed that, on average, only around half of non-English documents also included titles or abstracts in English. This means that around 13,000 documents on conservation science published in 2014 are unsearchable using English keywords.

This can result in sweeps of current scientific knowledge - known as 'systematic reviews' - being biased towards evidence published in English, say the researchers. This, in turn, may lead to over-representation of results considered positive or 'statistically significant', and these are more likely to appear in English language journals deemed 'high-impact'.

In addition, information on areas specific to countries where English is not the mother tongue can be overlooked when searching only in English.

For environmental science, this means important knowledge relating to local species, habitats and ecosystems - but also applies to diseases and medical sciences. For example, documents reporting the infection of pigs with avian flu in China initially went unnoticed by international communities, including the WHO and the UN, due to publication in Chinese-language journals.

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

"The real problem of in science is that few people have tried to solve it. 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.

"I believe the scientific community needs to start seriously tackling this issue."

Amano and colleagues say that, when conducting systematic reviews or developing databases at a global scale, speakers of a wide range of languages should be included in the discussion: "at least Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and French, which, in theory, cover the vast majority of non-English scientific documents."

The website, a repository for conservation science developed at Cambridge by some of the authors, has also established an international panel to extract the best non-English language papers, including Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese.

"Journals, funders, authors and institutions should be encouraged to supply translations of a summary of a scientific publication - regardless of the language it is originally published in," says Amano. The authors of the new study have provided a summary in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and French as well as Japanese.

"While outreach activities have recently been advocated in science, it is rare for such activities to involve communication across language barriers."

The researchers suggest efforts to translate should be evaluated in a similar way to other outreach activities such as public engagement, particularly if the science covers issues at a global scale or regions where English is not the .

Adds Amano: "We should see this as an opportunity as well as a challenge. Overcoming barriers can help us achieve less biased knowledge and enhance the application of globally."

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More information: PLOS Biology, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933
Journal information: PLoS Biology

Citation: Languages still a major barrier to global science, new research finds (2016, December 29) retrieved 22 August 2019 from
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User comments

Dec 31, 2016
While I believe that learning other languages is good thing in itself, and from a practical point of view, I also believe that having a scientific lingua franca is an even better thing. Researchers already have their hands full with their research; devoting time to finding out whether something relevant to their research has been published in some language other than English is, in general, simply not practical, even if we are talking about the other half dozen major languages alone. For better or worse, English currently is the new Latin. If you want to get recognition in most fields of the scientific world, you'd better publish in English.

Dec 31, 2016

The site has many other portals for folks who speak other languages to learn it. It's said to be a very easy language to learn, which is not surprising since it was constructed to be easy to learn and easy to use.

Dec 31, 2016

The site has many other portals for folks who speak other languages to learn it. It's said to be a very easy language to learn, which is not surprising since it was constructed to be easy to learn and easy to use.

Dang, Schneib... They were pushing that back in the 70's...:-) Haven't heard much about it since. Looked very similar to Romance lanquages...

Dec 31, 2016
No sense re-inventing the wheel. ;)

My wife used to speak it fluently when I met her; she's doubtless lost facility due to non-use, but I expect she would pick it up very quickly if she needed to use it much. I never learned it but it's one of those things I've always thought I might try if I had the time. Heh, good luck to me with that.

It sounds very like Spanish or Italian to my musician's ear. It doesn't have any difficult pronunciations, but English speakers are warned to pay careful attention to js which are pronounced like ys in English, and to cs which are like the German z, pronounced "ts."

A big advantage is that it is taught in China, opening access to their scientific literature, and opening Western science to them, without difficulty due to linguistic prejudice. The Chinese actually have an all-Esperanto news channel.

One of the really nice things is it doesn't have any irregular forms.

Dec 31, 2016
Irregular forms are one of the most difficult things about learning a language; both French and English are replete with these, particularly verb forms. They are there due to cultural historical reasons. A great example is the -en noun forms in English, and the weird number forms in French. The latter is a great barrier to scientific discourse since numbers are the essence of scientific thought.

One additional thought: science has accepted the metric system. Is it not now time for science to accept a common language?

Dec 31, 2016
Journals, funders, authors and institutions should be encouraged to supply translations of a summary of a scientific publication

What good is a summary in another language going to do if the paper is still going to be only in english?
If the interested researcher can't speak english he will not be able to read the paper in any case. If he can speak english he doesn't need the non-english summary.

That said: having once worked for a translation company specializing in technical translation I can attest to the fact that technical translations are extremely prone to being 'bad' - as translators are, well, translators. If they knew science they wouldn't hump shitty translator jobs. And those were only technical translations - I shudder to think what science paper translations would look like. (Even non-native english speaking scientists have a hard time writing *their own* papers in english - and they know first hand about the subject!)

Dec 31, 2016
@antialias, one has only to peruse technical manuals in Japaneselish or Chineselish or even Germanlish to see the flaw you point out.

"Are coming to put importantly configuration parameter to desired value with reference to predicated settings."

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