As much as we’d like to think otherwise, the facts (data, analyses, results, observations) do not speak for themselves. As scientists and educators, we are obliged to explain and interpret the facts; to attach meaning to them. As things have come to pass in the scientific world, we are obliged to speak for the facts in English.
This post was inspired by a discussion posted on researchgate.net by Alejandro Bortolus of the Centro Nacional Patagonico (Argentina): Is the use of English in scientific articles a real need for an international working language, or a sign of long-lasting Colonialism? The lively discussion can be accessed here.
You can’t rely on me for a comprehensive and coherent summary of the comments and reactions, but some key themes are:
•The (obvious) advantages of having a single lingua franca to support global scientific communication.
•The (obvious) advantages of respecting and preserving local languages and multilingualism, and allowing authors and scientists to communicate at their best, which is usually in our native languages.
•The professional demands that scientific publication be solely or primarily in English, and the adverse impacts thereof (see the bullet point above).
•What could or should be done?
I thank Bortolus for bringing this question to the fore. As I work quite a bit—as collaborator, coauthor, and reviewer—with colleagues who are not native English speakers, it is something I have thought about a lot.
First, note that I comment from a position of privilege and unearned good fortune. Born, raised, and living my entire life in the USA, I am a native English speaker and writer. I am terrible at languages (somehow, I managed two years of high school French with passing grades but without any fluency whatsoever), and due to the good fortune of my birth and residence (linguistically, anyway), I have been able to dodge the need to learn any other languages. In college, I exploited a loophole that existed in some places in the 1970s that allowed one to substitute a computer programming language for an actual language. Accordingly, I was once fluent is what is now a dead language (FORTRAN). As a scientist and writer, I would be completely helpless if I had to communicate in any language other than English.
I am strongly sympathetic to non-NES (native English speakers). Knowing how much I often wrestle with the details and nuances of wording to get my points across, and how small, subtle variations in superficially similar phrasings can make a big difference, I worry about what I/we may be missing from non-NES scholars more-or-less forced to publish in English, while recognizing that if the publications were only in Mandarin, Russian, Czech, or Thai, I would miss the whole damn thing.
I dismiss the issues of colonialism, and of pushing back on the establishment of English as the standard language of science. I dismiss these not because they are not important and legitimate—they certainly are! On colonial legacies, however, I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said before, mainly by people with more expertise than I. And I believe the linguistic hegemony of English in science to be a done deal that we cannot do anything about in the near future.
Bortolus himself has some recommendations that I agree with:
(1) Non-NES scientists must exercise their legitimate right to write and communicate their ideas in their own language without negative feedback.
(2) International scientific editorials should help non-NES scientists to counteract the loss of valuable local literature, historically considered disposable gray literature, by encouraging their citation and soliciting (through the ‘‘Guide for Authors’’) electronic reprints to archive them as supporting material with open access (a win–win situation).
(3) Local non-NES scientific institutions and editorials should support more, and explicitly, the publication of books and review papers in local languages to make this information more accessible to laypeople and to promote the engagement of young non-NES scientists in modern local schools of thought.
(4) Leading non-NES scientific journals and editorials must pursue the creation of experienced and attractive editorial boards willing to achieve the highest possible standard ofpublication based on international counterparts. There is no point in favoring publication in local languages if the quality of the resulting papers will be mediocre.
(5) Balancing the number of publications in English with those in local languages must be on the agenda of all non-NES nations that aim to achieve the sustainable development of local science in communion with society.
I would add a couple of items. In addition to items 2 and 3, journals should allow electronic archiving not only of background materials, but also of non-English versions of published articles—that is, a published English version could be coupled to a version in another language.
Second, as referees, reviewers, and editors, we privileged NES need to cut others some slack. Sometimes that may mean lowering the bar a bit with respect to the literary (not the scientific!) quality of a manuscript. Sometimes it means being understanding when a perfectly acceptable but non-traditional term is used (for instance, underground instead of subsurface). Often it means taking more time to get through a manuscript to evaluate its scientific value, rather than recommending rejection because the writing is poor (though sometimes the writing is so poor that the scientific value cannot be reliably assessed).
Finally, consider taking the time to help non-NES authors correct and polish their English through detailed editing. I know--those of us who review a lot of papers can’t do this every time, and often there is not sufficient time to do this even if you want to. But every now and then, for a piece of work that you consider promising, do it.