In the scientific world, there is an unspoken rule that researchers must be fluent in English in order to obtain international recognition for their work. Even if one does not speak fluent English, the researcher should at least possess a certain level of understanding in the language in order to access and read scientific literature, which are usually only available in English. In fact, it has become one of the main characteristics that employers actively seek for in young research talents. As a result, it is common for scholars to publish their academic work in English, even though English is not their native language, whereas scientists who are not fluent in English struggle to gain recognition for their work, or even survive in the ever increasingly competitive world of academia.
While having an international scientific language allows for better communication among researchers from all around the world, there are two caveats in applying this readily-accepted rule: 1) What happens to research findings that are published in languages other than English? 2) How do researchers readily apply knowledge and insights gained from scientific research findings published in English in non-English-speaking countries?
A colleague of mine was invited recently to be a guest lecturer at a university in Kazakhstan. While at it, she took the opportunity to learn more about the current progress of her area of research in the country, and was astounded by the abundance of research work that has been conducted in the past 20 years but was either left unpublished or only published in Kazakh. Mind you, Kazakhstan is one of the youngest countries in the world, having gained its independence in 1991 and still finding its footing – imagine the plethora of research that has been carried out in much older non-English speaking countries. Now, think about the research literature published in English that we have been relying on to conduct comparative studies and systematic reviews; and those published in other languages that we have ignored. Adding them altogether, this is the amount of research data and knowledge that we, as part of the international scientific community, are missing out.
Researchers in the non-English speaking scientific community face various practical difficulties caused by the demand for English publications as well. Researchers usually aim to gain international recognition, as opposed to national recognition, for the research works they have carried out. Thus, non-native English speaking researchers are usually more inclined to publish their research in international journals that are usually in English language. However, as a member of the society, it is also important to disseminate one’s research findings and make it accessible to the non-academicians such as journalists and research-based practitioners in order to reap the benefits of the research outcomes. Thus, when the academician works in a non-English speaking country, there is a need to publish research results in the native language of the country. Since a research can only be published in one journal, this creates a significant dilemma among researchers in choosing between establishing one’s own career and contributing to the society.
Fortunately, we are starting to see efforts – though few – being made in boosting accessibility to research publications in languages other than English, which are driven by the Open Access movement. Articles published in Open Access journals can be translated and redistributed without the need to request for permission. In addition, Open Access journals such as The Public Library of Science are now encouraging authors to submit manuscripts written in their native languages along with the manuscript in English as supplementary documents (Editorial, 2006). Multilingual publications will not only help increase scientific visibility of researchers from non-English scientific community, but also help prevent cases of author misconduct such as duplicate publications (see e.g. Committee on Publication Ethics, 2007).
Some might be skeptical about the quality of the research conducted in non-English speaking countries, but that argument is a reason in itself to support the importance of publishing research bilingually. Making research findings available to both English and non-English speaking scientific communities will help in making easier for both communities to evaluate the quality of the research. As another solution to the issue of research quality, more and more countries are making efforts to increase recognition for scientific contributions by publishing research in their own language, and encouraging bilingual scientists to translate these research findings into English. In fact, this is not something new. Long before English became the lingua franca of the scientific world, Latin was arguably the only acceptable written language for sharing scientific knowledge amongst scholars in the west (Gunnarsson, 2011). This was back in the 18th century; until scholars began to promote language diversity in the scientific community by writing research findings in their native languages, including German, Italian, and English (Meneghini & Packer, 2007), which we all know through the world history, after years of colonizations and war, English replaced Latin as the international scientific language. While it is still uncertain whether the recurrent trend of diversifying scientific languages will be beneficial to the scientific community as a whole, it is a good initiative to encourage accessibility as well as transparency of scientific research.
In conjunction with the efforts to reduce language barrier in scientific communication, ResearchGate, a social networking hub exclusive for researchers, has recently rolled out a new feature on their site that allows researchers to share and publish all of their research data, regardless of whether they are of negative or positive results, and whether they have been peer-reviewed or not. Although the main aim of this feature is to decrease file-drawer effects as well as to increase the accessibility of research, the ability to share research data of any format or version also means that researchers can share their own publications with other researchers in languages other than English. At the same time, these publications are directly linked to the researcher’s profile, thus enhancing one’s credibility in his or her field of research.
That said, writing manuscripts in more than one language is an extra effort. It is not surprising if some of you might be turned off by the idea of “social inclusion” of non-English scientific community halfway through this article. Perhaps, we might just be lucky enough to witness the birth of advanced virtual translators that are able to translate scientific texts accurately in the future, which will save us the hassle of manual translation. But is it worth to wait for that day to come, and until then, what’s your take?
Committee on Publication Ethics (2007). Duplicate publication in a non-English language journal (Case 07-42). Retrieved from: http://publicationethics.org/case/duplicate-publication-non-english-language-journal
Editorial (2006). Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten: Language matters in medicine. The Public Library of Science Medicine. 3(2), e122. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0030122
Gunnarsson, B. (Ed.). (2011). Introduction. In Languages of science in the eighteenth century (pp. 3 – 24). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Meneghini, R., & Packer, A. L. (2007). Is there science beyond English? Initiatives to increase the quality and visibility of non-English publications might help break down language barrier in scientific communication. The European Molecular Biology Organization Report, 8(2), 112 – 116. doi: 10.1038/sj.embor.7400906
Yee Row Liew is an Editor of the JEPS Bulletin, who has a wide research background and experience that range from plant genetics to psychology. Having completed her postgraduate study just recently in Psychological Research Methods from Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom, she is now working as a research assistant at the Global Sustainability Institute. She hopes to gain further knowledge in the study of emotion, cognition, and motivation, in pursuit of her love for scientific research.