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


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Over a third of new conservation science documents published annually are in non-English languages, despite assumption of English as scientific ‘lingua franca’. Researchers find examples of important science missed at international level, and practitioners struggling to access new knowledge, as a result of language barriers.

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 scientific knowledge.”

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.”

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 in English.


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