Language a barrier to flow of scientific knowledge

By Amin Equiano Language is still a major barrier to the transfer of scientific knowledge...

By Amin Equiano

Language is still a major barrier to the transfer of scientific knowledge even though English is increasingly used as the global language of science, a study has found.

The research, published in the journal PLOS Biology, highlights a practical problem that scientists in many parts of the world, including francophone Africa, have long struggled with.

Its authors took a close look at scientific documents on biodiversity conservation published in 2014. The documents — more than 75,000 in total — were written in 16 different languages.

For about every ten documents, roughly six were in English and three in other languages.

The numbers suggest that English remains a leading language within scientific communities.

But the results also underline the fact that a great deal of research is still conducted in languages other than English, and that they end up having little visibility.

That is particularly true for universities and research centres in several African countries that do not use English as their primary language.

“I have long been interested in how language barriers could affect science in general,” Tatsuya Amano, lead researcher on the study, told SciDev.Net. “However, this problem has rarely been tackled by scientific communities so far.”

Native English speakers tend to assume that all important knowledge is available and can be communicated in English, according to Amano. On the other hand, he notes, non-native English speakers tend to think that conducting research in English is the first priority, and often they end up ignoring non-English language science.

“Ignoring such non-English knowledge can cause biases in our understanding of study systems,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

“A francophone researcher will always need more time than a native English speaker to produce a paper of equal scientific quality.”

Cheikh Becaye Gaye, past director general for research in Senegal

Amano is confident the findings could be useful to other fields beyond biodiversity conservation, which was the focus of the study.

Cheikh Becaye Gaye, who served as director general for research in Senegal, says he is far too familiar with the problem raised by Tatsuya Amano and his colleagues.

“In the area of scientific knowledge transfer, there is a gap between the production [of research] in English and that in other languages, including French,” says Gaye. “And with respect to Africa, that obstacle to universal science is made more acute by the low schooling rate among African populations.”

Gaye adds that francophone researchers are aware of the issue and have committed efforts towards learning English so they could overcome the barrier that stands between them and their English-speaking colleagues.

However, he suggests they still face a large obstacle.

“The outputs are never going to be the same in terms of deliverables, in the sense that a francophone researcher will always need more time than a native English speaker to produce a paper of equal scientific quality,” explains Gaye.

That is a frustration that Amano, a non-native English speaker originally from Japan, can identify with. This led him and his research team to propose a number of approaches to tackle the language barrier issue.

Their suggestions include approaches for compiling non-English knowledge, using non-English keywords in literature searches, and increasing the visibility of non-English literature through the development of a journals database and use of well-recognised online repositories.

To facilitate the “multi-lingualisation” of knowledge currently available in English, they suggest making translations of published papers available as lay summaries on journals’ websites as well as in supporting information, preprints and post-prints of the original papers.

“Ideally, scientific communities should consider and adopt our suggestions in order to tackle this issue and, as a result, achieve the compilation of less biased scientific knowledge and its smooth application to local issues,” says Amano.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa-French desk.



(1) Languages Are Still a Major Barrier to Global Science