Despite the popular assumption of English as scientific ‘lingua franca’, over a third of new science research documents published annually are in non-English languages and researchers found that the language barrier leads to important scientific discoveries being missed at international level, contributing to biases in understanding and hindering new findings getting through to practitioners in the field.
The Cambridge researchers called on scientific journals to publish basic summaries of a study in multiple languages, and urged 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. Language barriers continue to impede the global compilation and application of scientific knowledgeDr Tatsuya Amano, Department of Zoology, Cambridge University
The researchers also 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 their local languages.”
This is a particular problem in subjects where both local expertise and implementation is vital - such as environmental sciences.
As part of the study, those in charge of Spain's protected natural areas were surveyed. Over half of the respondents identified language as an obstacle to using the latest science for habitat management. The Cambridge team also conducted a litmus test of language use in science.
They surveyed the web platform Google Scholar - one of the largest public repositories of scientific documents - in a total of 16 languages for studies relating to biodiversity conservation published during a single year, 2014.
Of the over 75,000 documents, including journal articles, books and theses, some 35.6 per cent were not in English. Of these, the majority was in Spanish (12.6 percent) or Portuguese (10.3 percent). Simplified Chinese made up six percent, and three percent were in French.
The researchers also found thousands of newly published conservation science documents in other languages, including several hundred each in Italian, German, Japanese, Korean and Swedish.
Lead author Amano and his colleagues said that when conducting systematic reviews or developing databases at a global scale, speakers of a wide range of languages should be included in the discussion.