Study: Language barriers holding back global science

Early reports of avian flu infections among pigs in China were ignored by international science communities. Researchers suggest more translation of science journals will break down barriers. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Dec. 31 (UPI) — The domination of English and a lack of translation is hurting global science, new research suggests.

According to a new study in the journal PLOS Biology, the domination of English creates barriers to knowledge transfer. The barriers are present in all scientific fields, but especially problematic in biodiversity conservation.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge surveyed journal articles, books and theses published in the fields of biodiversity, habitat conservation and wildlife management in 2014. Of the more than 75,000 documents, 35.6 percent were published in a language other than English.

Most non-English studies were published in Spanish and Portuguese, a smaller percentage in Chinese and French. Only half of these were published with titles and abstracts translated into English. Thousands of papers are unsearchable in English.

Researchers say the domination of English among international scientific communities and the lack of translation makes it more likely non-English research will go ignored.

“Scientific knowledge generated in the field by non-native English speakers is inevitably under-represented, particularly in the dominant English-language academic journals,” Tatsuya Amano, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, said in a news release. “This potentially renders local and indigenous knowledge unavailable in English.”

“Native English speakers tend to assume that all the important information is available in English,” Amano explained. “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.”

The barriers detailed in the recent paper are especially problematic for environmental sciences. Many biodiversity hotspots are located in remote areas where English isn’t always common. The first studies of vulnerable local species are often published in a language other than English.

Language barriers also hamper the study of infectious diseases and medical sciences. The growth of avian flu infection among pigs in China, for example, was initially ignored by international science communities, as local studies on the topic weren’t garnering attention outside of Chinese journals.

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


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