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Language barriers said to be creating hurdles for global science

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Language barriers have been creating communication problems and now a new study has found that the same barriers are also hindering the reach of scientific developments around the world and creating hurdles for global science.

Researchers at University of Cambridge in the UK have revealed through a study that a third of new scientific findings are published in languages other than English and this effectively contributes to biases in our understanding and hindrances to the advance of science and research. Major journals publish studies in English despite the fact that the studies are carried out by authors having other linguistic backgrounds.

Language hinders new findings getting through to practitioners in the field and causes the international community missing important science. The study also suggests that whenever science is only published in one language, barriers to the transfer of knowledge are created.

The researchers call on scientific journals to publish basic summaries of a study’s key findings in multiple languages and universities to encourage translations as part of their outreach evaluation criteria.

Researchers point out an imbalance in knowledge transfer in countries where English is not the mother tongue – much scientific knowledge that has originated there is available only in English and not in their local languages.

For the study, scientists at Cambridge surveyed the web platform Google Scholar in a total of 16 languages for studies on 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 per cent) or Portuguese (10.3 per cent). Simplified Chinese made up six per cent and three per cent were in French.

Random sampling showed that only around half of non-English documents included titles or abstracts in English. This means that around 13,000 documents on conservation science published in 2014 are unsearchable using English keywords. This can result in sweeps of current scientific knowledge – known as systematic reviews – being biased towards evidence published in English, researchers said. This, in turn, may lead to over-representation of results considered positive or statistically significant, and these are more likely to appear in English language journals deemed high-impact.

In addition, information on areas specific to countries where English is not the mother tongue can be overlooked when searching only in English. For environmental science, this means important knowledge relating to local species, habitats and ecosystems – but also applies to diseases and medical sciences.

The research is published in the journal PLOS Biology.