Cambridge zoologist says international science is overly fixated on using English
Listen carefully, because this will be said only once. English is not the only language of science.
Écoutez attentivement, car cela ne sera dit qu’une fois. L’anglais n’est pas la seule langue de la science. Ouça atentamente, porque isso será dito apenas uma vez. O inglês não é a única língua da ciência. No need to repeat in Spanish, or simplified Chinese. The message is clear enough in any language.
Tatsuya Amano, a Cambridge zoologist, believes international science is missing something by fixating on English as the lingua franca of research. It introduces a bias and important findings may be missed, simply because they are not published in English. He and colleagues recently counted 75,000 journal articles, books and theses that used the words “biodiversity” and “conservation” published in 2014, in a total of 16 languages. More than a third of these were not in English, and a random sample suggested that around half did not include English abstracts.
“It is really important to compile knowledge globally because these are global issues. You need to compile as much information as possible on a global scale but also it is quite important to apply this information to local issues because it is the local practitioners and policy makers who actually tackle these issues,” Dr Amano says.
“So in these two directions, there is a huge consequence of language barriers. I think this is particularly important in conservation science.”
And he thinks that vital research could be a lot more easily shared if all papers carried a lay summary translated into, at the very least, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and French, the other languages that make up most of the 36 per cent of 2014’s sample that was not written in English.
Publication in languages other than English can deliver significant news. One such was the discovery that pigs had been infected by avian influenza virus: information important to both the World Health Organisation and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and ultimately to public health chiefs and animal welfare officers everywhere. The results appeared in Chinese language journals, and the message took a while to get through. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature missed out on the latest data from Taiwan about the fairy pitta, Pitta nympha, a beautiful little passerine or perching bird defined as “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List, because the report appeared only in traditional Chinese. Dr Amano heard about it because the researcher was a friend.
He is 38, and he lives in Cambridge with his wife and a small daughter. He gained his PhD at the University of Tokyo and he started with an interest in white-fronted geese, Anser albifrons, and what they do to croplands. This one small aspect of the tension between the conservation of biodiversity and the challenge of food security helped to get him interested in the wider problem of the gaps in global information about biodiversity and conservation. He came to Cambridge, and to an office in the David Attenborough building, in 2011 to pursue the question. He is also based at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, where he has now started to think about the kind of catastrophic ecosystem collapse that could threaten the stability of human society. He won’t be drawn on the detail yet, but imagine a world without insect pollinators, or the collapse of fish populations.
He thinks the information gap will get wider. Whatever their first language, scientists are encouraged to publish in English.
“And that applies to me, actually: I published most of my papers in English, and that is for my own career, and that tendency has guaranteed the increasing proportion of English papers in the future, I think. But still, there are so many papers in non-English languages,” he says.
His latest study – in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Biology - is based on a survey of just one aspect of science in just one year. But if conservation science is anything like climate science, the available information is growing exponentially. A separate study by a different team last year calculated that climate-related science publishing was doubling every six years or so.
So researchers looking for the big picture will be sweeping the field of science with a set of key English search terms: the implication is that any overall analysis will be seriously skewed and that important information will inevitably be missed. That is why he and colleagues propose a multilingual solution.
“I have been working on how biodiversity data and studies are distributed across the globe, or over time, and over taxa, and obviously the distribution of information is highly biased towards North America and Europe. And I have been wondering how we can tackle this issue, and one potential solution to this problem is to extract information hidden by the language barriers,” he says.
Our conversation is conducted, of course, in English rather than Japanese. The proportion of native English speakers with a second language is notoriously small.
“I don’t want to make this a cultural debate or discussion. I want to see this as an opportunity,” Dr Amano says. “If we can overcome this problem, we can obtain much more information. I want to be as positive as possible.”
The languages of science
The scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries begins with Copernicus, who lived in Poland, Kepler the German, Tycho Brahe the Dane, the Italian Galileo and the Englishman Isaac Newton. They had a common language: Latin. But few now can read their original publications.
For much of science history, the research initiative seemed distributed across the European languages: scientists knew about each other, but had to wait for translation. Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian who wrote in Latin, German and French. Charles Darwin boarded HMS Beagle with an English translation of Humboldt.
The Silesian monk Gregor Mendel knew about Darwin’s 1859 theory of evolution, but Darwin knew nothing of Mendel’s revolutionary study of inheritance, because it was published in German in the journal of the Natural History Society of Brunn or Brno in what is now the Czech Republic. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky laid the foundations for rocketry and space research in his native Russian. Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity were published in German.
The first test of the latter was published in English by Sir Arthur Eddington. With the migration of many European scientists to the US, English gradually became the all-purpose language of science,
Modern microbiology and the idea of disease as microbial infection began in France with Louis Pasteur but in 1989, the famous Institut Pasteur announced that it would publish its journals in English.
:: Read more exclusive science features like this every week in the Cambridge Independent and on our app for iOS and Android. Tim Radford is a member of the Climate News Network.