Scientific progress may be impeded by use of English, research finds

Joanna Taylor 9 January 2017

Impact factor, the average number of times a year recent papers published in a journal are cited, is the metric by which scientific journals are often judged. Citations are part of the currency of science. A large number of citations for a paper show that it is talked about frequently and, for better or worse, that the author is well-known. 

There are a large number of academic journals: some, like Angewandte Chemie are published in two languages (in this case German and English), but the top 50 academic journalis (according to are all published in English. A study from Cambridge researchers in PLOS Biology is challenging scientists and scientific publishers to do something about this. 

According to the study, the acceptance of English as the international scientific language has two main effects. It firstly prevents the dissemination of scientific knowledge to policy makers and makes understanding difficult in local langauges, and secondly it makes diffusion of knowledge gathered in languages other than English to the general scientific community much harder. 

The team entered terms such as 'biodiversity' and 'conservation' into the Google Scholar search engine in 16 languages and found a total of 75,513 academic documents in all of those languages combined. Publications in English made up the overwhelming majority (64.4%) with Spanish a distant second (12.6%). By inspecting 95 of these Spanish-language results the team determined that 48% did not provide an abstract or introduction (the fundamental summary of the report often used to select which articles to read) in English. 

Similar findings in the remaining 16 languages show that with knowledge exclusively of English you would be unable to read the majority of publications not written in English. This has the additional effect that scientific data from areas with small numbers of English speakers are liable to bias against them from higher impact journals, and will be excluded from global databases run in English. 

The block in the flow of knowledge works in both directions: the team surveyed directors of regional and national protected areas in Spain and, of the 24 responses to the survey (from a total of 44 contacted), 13 cited language barriers as a serious impediment in extracting scientific information for management. 

The team conclude that there is no one group that needs to address this problem. It is an issue throughout the scientific community, from publishing to international databases, that the language science is carried out in prevents its dissemination. This could be prevented by publishing summaries of all articles in many common languages and taking publications into consideration regardless of the language it is published in.