Oct 21, 2021 - Science

The science that isn't seen because it's not in English

Illustration of the word "Science" in various languages with "Science" in English featured more prominently.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From conference presentations to scientific papers to databases, English is the lingua franca of science — but as a result, science published in languages other than English often goes unread.

Why it matters: Overlooking or excluding science that isn't communicated in English could hinder global responses to pandemics, the loss of biodiversity and climate change.

  • Many papers in languages other than English are providing important information for biodiversity conservation, but they're excluded in global assessments that shape policies, says Tatsuya Amano, who studies the impact of language barriers in conservation biology at the University of Queensland in Australia.
  • On the flip side, scientific knowledge in English may not be able to contribute to local decisions in places where the language isn't spoken, he says.
  • Language barriers also affect the careers of scientists who don't speak English. Scientific journals, especially elite ones, are largely published in English, and some evidence suggests reviewers may give papers lower quality ratings because of a linguistic bias, and not the science itself.

What's happening: A recent study found 85% of the world's population is now affected by climate change. But the other 15%, largely in the global south, is most likely still affected — the analysis just revealed big blind spots in the data. The authors say the research database they used could be improved by incorporating non-English evidence.

  • Climate change and biodiversity assessments draw from databases that overwhelmingly index scientific papers published in English.
  • But when Amano and 62 collaborators screened more than 419,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers in 16 languages, they identified about 1,200 studies assessing the effectiveness of biodiversity conservation efforts in languages other than English — and the number is growing. (There were about 4,400 papers in English that matched the same criteria for studying different interventions.)
  • By considering such non-English language studies, 12%–25% more areas of the world and 5%–32% more species would be covered in research, including biodiversity hotspots where English isn't a common language, they report in the journal PLOS Biology.

In another study, researchers found the majority of indexed publications about climate change in Africa was also in English.

  • But when they broadened their search with Google Scholar, they found a small number of relevant papers published in other languages were not included in the databases scientists typically use for identifying — and building on — past research.
  • Most of the Portuguese-language research about climate change in Portuguese-speaking Africa was in student dissertations and doctoral theses. When they tracked 11 doctoral theses, they found they "are essentially invisible to standard literature reviews, particularly those conducted in English," says study co-author Michelle North, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

The impact: Beyond its effect on policymaking and scientific research, language often determines who gets to do science.

  • It can be expensive to teach English and time-intensive to learn it.
  • Language barriers alter who learns about a field and what receives attention in the media, Nussaïbah Raja-Schoob, a paleontologist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, who has written about the issue in paleontology, tells Axios in an email.
  • "Paleontology already has a diversity problem, which is exacerbated by this," she says.

The big picture: A combination of geopolitical events — including World War I and its aftermath, which crippled German as a prominent language of science — the invention of the computer, and U.S. universities training many students from around the world elevated English in science, says Michael Gordin, a historian of science at Princeton University.

"English was the last language standing."
— Michael Gordin, Princeton University
  • "The world is really at the beginning of this. English has only been dominating for 30 years," says Scott Montgomery, a geoscientist and lecturer at the University of Washington who is the author of "Does Science Need a Global Language?"
  • His answer, in short: yes, because it is more efficient, but he says everyone needs to have equal access to that language and information in it.
  • Raja-Schoob and others instead advocate for a multilingual way of doing science that could help to address the inequities in who gets to do science and what science is recognized.

What to watch: English is currently entrenched as the language of science, but the researchers who conducted these studies say there are ways to help elevate the work of scientists who don't speak the language.

  • Translating science is one key way. Some journals provide paper abstracts in several languages. The Cochrane Library, published by Wiley, includes translations of medicine and health evidence summaries across 15 languages, including for COVID-19.
  • That's time-consuming and expensive, though advances in machine translation could help. Amano says he is skeptical of AI translations for science but is now testing their accuracy and effectiveness.
  • Collaborating with scientists who speak languages other than English, seeking out scientific papers in different languages, and not automatically undervaluing non-English science can all help as well, North says.

The bottom line: "If people don’t read these other languages, they are losing that knowledge," Gordin says.

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