English is widely assumed to be the “lingua franca” of research globally, but studies bringing out new knowledge or insights and published in non-English journals and publications are often missed due to the existing language barriers in influential academic circles.
A study by University of Cambridge researchers has found that over a third of new conservation science documents published annually are in non-English languages, providing examples of important science being missed at the international level.
The language barrier means that practitioners and researchers struggle to access and use new knowledge, while a focus of research only on English may lead to biases in the understanding of key issues, the study says.
The Cambridge researchers argue that whenever science is published only in one language, including solely in English, barriers to the transfer of knowledge are created, according to their findings published in PLOS Biology.
They have called on scientific journals to publish basic summaries of a study's key findings in multiple languages, and for 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 Tatsuya Amano from the Department of Zoology and lead author of the study.
"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 local languages.
This is a particular problem in subjects where both local expertise and implementation is vital, such as in environmental sciences.
"Scientific knowledge generated in the field by non-native English speakers is inevitably under-represented, particularly in the dominant English-language academic journals. This potentially renders local and indigenous knowledge unavailable in English," says Amano.
"The real problem of language barriers in science is that few people have tried to solve it. Native English speakers tend to assume that all the important information is available in English. But this is not true, as we show in our study.”
"On the other hand, non-native English speakers, like myself, tend to think carrying out research in English is the first priority, often ending up ignoring non-English science and its communication. I believe the scientific community needs to start seriously tackling this issue."
The study calls on journals, funders, authors and institutions to be encouraged to supply translations of a summary of a scientific publication - regardless of the language it is originally published in.