Solving the language gap in scientific research

A recent study published in the scientific journal Plos Biology found that research on nine amphibian species, 217 bird species and 64 mammal species were largely unknown to the larger scientific community because they were conducted in languages other than English. It estimated that  non-English language research could expand the geographical coverage of biodiversity scientific evidence by 12% to 25% and the number of species covered by 5% to 32%. All this raises a pressing question: Just how much scientific research is being obscured due to language barriers? 

According to the study, there is a widely held assumption that any important scientific information will always be available in English. This underlies the underuse of non-English-language science across disciplines. However, non-English-language science often brings unique and valuable scientific information, especially in disciplines where the evidence is patchy and for emergent issues it’s urgent to synthesize available evidence.

A related article that appeared in the Guardian earlier this week gave the example of biologist, Valeria Ramírez Castañeda. Working out of Leticia, Colombia, Valeria struggled to share her research on how snakes eat poisonous frogs without getting ill in the Amazon Forest because it was written in Spanish. This language barrier has long been a serious obstacle in reaching the wider scientific community. Quite often, there simply is no budget or time, and that means that some of her findings never get published. 

Ramírez Castañeda is not alone. The amount of scientific knowledge that requires translation is huge. There is a plethora of research in non-English-language papers that gets lost in translation, or is never translated, creating a gap in the global community’s scientific knowledge. As the amount of scientific research grows, so does the gap. This is especially true for conservation and biodiversity. Research about native traditions and knowledge tied to biodiversity, for example, is often conducted in the domestic non-colonial language and isn’t translated.

Not without controversy, some in the scientific community are advocating to make English the Lingua Franca of science. In his book, “Does Science need a Global Language? English and the Future of Research”, Scott Montgomery of the University of Washington, investigates the role of English as the global language of science. He argues that scientific knowledge should converge into one common language for the common good.

But Tatsuya Amano, a conservation scientist at the University of Queensland, Australia, is advocating for the opposite approach.

“Language barriers have serious consequences in science, causing inequality for under-represented communities, making non-English-language knowledge inaccessible, and impeding the uptake of science by decision-makers,” he said.  

“We live on a diverse planet, and not all important information can necessarily be sourced from a single language,” Amano added. “Ignoring science from other languages could bias findings. Collaborating with speakers of multiple languages when searching through local journals and literature databases can help counter this bias. Great examples of this include our translatE project and the Conservation Evidence project. Our team has also developed resources for aiding multilingual literature searches. In cases where comprehensive searches for literature in relevant non-English languages is simply not practical, a valid reason – such as limited financial and human resources – should be disclosed. Authors should be encouraged by their editors and reviewers to identify and cite relevant literature in other languages, where applicable.”

Mr. Amano has been collaborating with colleagues internationally to come up with a practical checklist of 10 tips to help everyone in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) tackle and overcome this overlooked language issue:

  1. Disseminate scientific research in multiple languages.
  2. Use scientific knowledge sourced from multiple languages.
  3. Increase the visibility of non-English-language science. Unfortunately, many major search engines do not index important peer-reviewed journals published in non-English languages
  4. Translate scientific terms: It’s becoming harder to find non-English-language translations for new scientific terms, with English terminology becoming default in many languages
  5. Provide genuine support to non-native speakers. Journals only rarely offer free English editorial services. 
  6. Distinguish language skills from scientific quality: unfortunately, “non-native-like” English is often rated lower than what’s written in “native-like” English.
  7. Consider language balance in scientific activities: increase the diversity in language background of contributors.
  8. Acknowledge efforts to overcome language barriers: scientific works in non-English languages are typically not acknowledged as important. 
  9. Be considerate of non-native speakers: be tolerant of any linguistic mistakes, non-native-like English usage, clumsiness, or slowness. 
  10. Make use of existing resources and opportunities.

It’s crucial that scientists have access to non-English conducted studies. Searching effectively and understanding non-English-language literature can be a challenging task, with the lack of relevant language skills often being a key reason for excluding non-English-language literature in evidence synthesis.

What specific languages are relevant varies depending on topic and region. Nevertheless, the language industry can likely play a major role in making the synthesis more comprehensive. We can easily support the 15 languages of the 20 highest ranked countries in the World Bank’s indicator for scientific and technical journal articles. 

Stefan Huyghe
Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.


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