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, revealed a new study.
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
‘Overcoming language barriers can help us achieve less biased knowledge and enhance the application of science globally.’
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
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 recognize 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.
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 conservation
science 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
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
"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 language barriers 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 conservationevidence.com,
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
"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
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 mother tongue.
Adds Amano: "We should see this as an opportunity as well as a
challenge. Overcoming language barriers can help us achieve less biased
knowledge and enhance the application of science globally."