How to end the hegemony of English in scientific research

A report by the Organization of Ibero-American States shows that 95% of all work published in journals last year was in that language, with only 1% in Spanish or Portuguese

Juan Miguel Hernández Bonilla
Report Organization Ibero American States
A class delivered in English at Catalonia's Polytechnic University (UPC).M. Minocri

Fully 95% of all articles published in scientific journals in 2020 were written in English, and only 1% in Spanish or Portuguese.

These figures were disclosed by Ángel Badillo, senior analyst on Spanish Language and Culture at the Spanish think tank Real Instituto Elcano, during the presentation of the preliminary conclusions of a report about linguistic diversity in science in Spain, Portugal and Latin America. The study was conducted by the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI) in partnership with the Elcano Institute.

The research, which will be officially unveiled in November in Brazil, show that last year 84% of researchers from Ibero-American countries – where Spanish or Portuguese is spoken – published their own work in English instead of their native tongues.

“Only 13% of scientists in Spain presented their work in Spanish, followed by 12% of those in Mexico, 16% in Chile, and around 20% in Argentina, Colombia and Peru,” reads the report. As for the Portuguese language, 3% of researchers from Portugal used their own language in their published work, compared with 12% of Brazilian scientists. All others published in English.

Ultimately, most citizens are unable to access the science that they are funding with their taxes

German, French and Russian, which were once commonly used in various scientific publications, are now in a similar predicament: under 1% of all papers, reviews or academic conferences that appeared in scientific journals in 2020 were written in those languages.

English enjoys complete hegemony in the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge today. But why is that? And what are the risks, if any? In a telephone interview, Badillo said that the problem is not so much that science is being published in English, as the fact that it is not being published in other languages.

Badillo, of the Sociology and Communications Department of Salamanca University, said that the goal of the report is to help ensure that language does not become a barrier to access knowledge. This knowledge should be accessible to all members of society, and should not come at a cost in terms of the internationalization of science. “It is important to promote diversity without hurting the development of networks, private investment or the quality of scientific findings,” he said.

The situation has to do not just with science, but with geopolitics, he adds. “Ibero-American countries have fallen into the trap of Anglo private industries,” said Badillo. “States pay scientists to investigate; we produce the knowledge, give it away to the big journals, thereby donating the findings of our work, and then these publications charge a truly astounding amount to the national science systems in order to access the results of our own investigations.” Ultimately, most citizens are unable to access the science that they are funding with their taxes, because it is only available in publications that charge for reading content that is written in a different language anyway.

Ana Paula Laborinho, director general of the Ibero-American Program for Bilingualism and Dissemination of the Portuguese Language at OEI, agrees. “Writing science in a given language is more than just that: it means thinking in a cultural representation of the world. Shared access to knowledge has an impact on regional economic development,” she said.

There are three reasons for this “dictatorship of English,” as the authors of the study called it. The first is inertia: after World War II, German stopped being the language of science, as French had been before German, and Latin long before French. Ever since then, it has been a widely held belief that the best science is made and published in English. “This generates an erroneous perception that science that is not written in that language is not of the same quality,” said Badillo. “It’s a kind of segregation.”

Many researchers in Ibero-American countries tend to publish in English not just to interact with the international scientific community, but also for reasons of status

Many researchers in Ibero-American countries, he said, tend to publish in English not just to interact with the international scientific community, but also for reasons of status. “Scientists believe that if they don’t publish in English, they won’t have access to certain journals, and it is these that provide the kind of legitimacy that lets the researchers join the system of incentives and climb rungs in their work.”

The second reason is the system of incentives. “The quality of published work is measured by the citation impact of the publishing journal, not by the relevance or novelty of the content,” explains Badillo. And the most widely cited journals are in English.

The third reason is tied to, and determines, the other two. “There are two major international companies, Elsevier and Clarivate Analytics, that have privatized the evaluation systems for the quality of science; they produce the international indexes listing the impact factor of journals that have been favoring English for decades,” said Badillo.

Added to all this is the fact that US scientists typically speak only English and that in recent decades, many American university campuses have dropped language learning. “If, as a researcher, I want people to read my work in US universities, I have to write in English, it’s practically an obligation,” said Badillo.

The consequences are numerous. One of them is limited access to knowledge because of the language barrier. And languages are more than communication systems, they are also systems of reality construction. As the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Badillo adds another potential outcome: “If we allow English to maintain its hegemony over science, in a few years we could find that neither Spanish or Portuguese are useful to express scientific knowledge anymore. If this situation remains unchanged over the next 50 years, and English gets consolidated as the only language of science, university lectures in Ibero-American countries might no longer be delivered in Spanish and Portuguese.”

The answer proposed by the OEI and the Real Instituto Elcano is to move towards open science, a movement to make scientific research and dissemination – including publications and databases – free and accessible to all citizens. “Science needs to get out of the ivory tower where it has been bureaucratized for years, and enter into greater dialogue with society,” insisted Badillo, pointing to tools that could help with the change of paradigm. “Artificial intelligence and automatic translation should help us guarantee access to science. It would be ideal to see, in the short run, an option to read the contents of each scientific article translated not just into Spanish or Portuguese but Korean, Mandarin or any other language.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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