For many centuries, researchers conducted scientific communication in Latin. Gradually, German, French, and English became the dominant research languages and now, English is the accepted scientific communication standard. This impacts not only researchers whose first language isn’t English but also the health of the scientific community as a whole. What are we losing because of this linguistic bias?
Consequences of language bias
It seems logical to establish a primary language for communicating scientific research. But the diversity of our planet means that members of many populations — those whose primary language isn’t English — face challenges and barriers to participating in scientific knowledge exchange.
- At the basic level, English-only research limits access to only those who can understand it. The inability to access the latest research can compromise a student’s ability to learn or a researcher’s ability to perform further research. It can also limit what educators are able to teach.
- To reach the broadest audience, publishers want to publish in English. Therefore, researchers often feel pressured to submit their work in English, creating an obvious language barrier for non-English speakers and turning bias toward those who speak it natively.
- A great deal of regional knowledge could be lost because researchers from those regions can’t precisely express their thoughts in English.
- Educational institution policies that favor English-language journals contribute to the problem.
- Finding the necessary resources to conduct research, attend, and present at conferences, as well as write, edit, and submit research to journals is difficult even for native English speakers. And, for non-English speakers, it’s much more than simply finding a good translator.
Lost in translation
Although working with a good translator is imperative for non-English speakers today, it’s also problematic. In addition to being expensive, finding translators highly proficient in English who have subject matter expertise in the discipline and understand publishing conventions adds to the issue. And even then, the idiosyncrasies of the English language leave it open to misinterpretation and contextual misunderstanding — especially for non-native speakers.
Researchers need to find collaborators who share their knowledge and passion, possess intrinsic knowledge of English and its use in scholarly publishing, and have the patience to work to overcome multilingual research challenges.
Even researchers with very strong English writing abilities often need to hire the services of a native speaker. Any deviation from conventional language can damage a researcher’s reputation as well as her or his chances of getting an article published.
On the other hand, if editors and publishers educate themselves on the challenges non-English speakers face and what the scientific community and society at large loses because of the unintentional consequences of language bias in scholarly publishing, perhaps they can develop ways to mitigate the negative effects. Publishers can start by being more tolerant of non-standard English use when it doesn’t compromise content integrity or with dual publishing in an author’s native language. By working together, publishers, academics, and researchers can develop solutions to further scholarship in research communities whose members deserve to hear and be heard.
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