Overcoming the downside of a universal language in science

The dominance of English-language journals can inhibit diversity, limit the ideas that get shared, and influence which research gets funded and rewarded.

By Ian Evans - August 27, 2021
Prof Marcelo Knobel, PhD, in his lab at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil. Prof Knobel is Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials.
Prof Marcelo Knobel, PhD, in his lab at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil. Prof Knobel is Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials.

Over the course of the 20th century, English emerged as the prevalent language of science. About 80% of journals indexed in Scopus were English-language, according to a 2012 study in Research Trends —  and that dominance continues to this day.

While there are benefits to having a “universal language” in science, the prevalence of English can also inhibit diversity, limit the ideas that get shared and influence which research gets funded and rewarded.

But does that have to be the case?

Prof Marcelo Knobel, PhD Not according to Prof Marcelo Knobel of the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials. Speaking to Elsevier Connect, he explained that with a combination of technology and action from publishers, local language research could start getting the attention it deserves. After all, he noted, while big international collaborations benefit from a shared language, research that is targeted to a region’s specific challenges needs to be understood by those in its community as well as the wider world:

Some research is really important for a certain region or a certain area. Sometimes this research does get published in international journals, but often it gets published in local language journals, and even when it’s really interesting research, that can limit the impact is has.

This issue was highlighted by the work of Carlos Estévez-Bretón, who was a Technology Transfer Officer at the University of Rosario (Universidad del Rosario) before joining Elsevier in 2018. Carlos noted that much of the social science research in Colombia that dealt with the effects of the drug trade was in Spanish. Therefore, he said, this research was being overlooked by other countries that could benefit. He commented at the time: “All the articles covering what really happened [in Colombia] are in Spanish, and they’re not in indexed journals. Our research on narco-traffic, drugs, violence and other aspects of social conflict are in local publications, with local collaborators, and those researchers simply don’t work in English.”

Carlos’s work combined a few of Elsevier’s research tools – Pure and Mendeley – with the DeepL translation service to translate relevant abstracts from research at the University of Rosario into English.

Technology as a translator

For Marcelo, that example gives a hint of what will be possible as technology continues to advance:

We’re at a turning point thanks to the advances of those automatic translation tools. They’re becoming much better; they’re not perfect, but you can read and understand a text translated by software.

I think that will be a game changer over the next few years. Even now, you and I could find a tool that would allow us each to talk in our native language and understand each other.

Of course, this opens up questions around the version of record and the ways word choice and nuance affect meaning and nuance in research. For Marcelo, these are issues that need to be worked out, and doing so will unleash new possibilities in research:

“It’s a new world we have to face in terms of ethics and so on,” he said of the challenge around version control and citations, which publishers would have to rise to. “But for research, it will be great because you will have access to different places, different journals and different ideas.”

Making sure local research is known to local people

Marcelo also pointed out that when researchers publish in their own language, that research is much more visible to their local community, which has its own benefits:

Just thinking of Brazil, where I’m from, we have a strong research community publishing good research, but people aren’t so aware of it because so much of it is in English. I was reading one piece of research that suggested only 14% of the population is able to name a single Brazilian researcher. In terms of local credibility and showing the benefits that research institutions provide, having local-language resources is very important.

Rethinking the reward system in research

Juliet Inyang Another element that needs to be addressed is the way the world of academia rewards research. Last year, Elsevier Connect spoke to Juliet Inyang, a Lecturer at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. She talked about the ways the reward system can skew a researcher’s priorities, moving the emphasis away from local challenges:

Let’s say I want to investigate an issue in aviation: Nigeria used to have a national airline carrier, and now it doesn’t even at a time when Nigerian air traffic is increasing. If I research that, I can examine the effects on the Nigerian economy, the psychological effect on the people, and whether a Nigerian carrier could generate huge revenue for the government. That’s research that could have a big impact on the country.

If she wants to get published in a well-regarded journal like the Journal of Air Transport Management, Juliet noted that they would be looking for something more international. “So the research I was motivated to do changes because to get published, I must think about including India, Australia. But that takes me away from what I was planning to do – and which would have had real impact for Nigeria.”

Addressing the ways in which research gets rewarded is an important step, Marcelo agreed, adding that the answers won’t come easily:

It’s complex, but it’s an important point because it connects to how researchers are evaluated within universities and how they get promoted.

Conventionally, research has been measured by citations and Impact Factor, and that’s a factor, but a broader range of metrics is emerging and these could include showing how research has made a difference to a regional environment. Marcelo continued:

It’s not always simple, but we should try to change the culture around measurement and around local research. As complicated as it is, it opens you up to new expressions of ideas and new ways of looking at the world.


Ian Evans
Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier in 2011 from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

Related stories

The enduring value of the local-language journal
When your research goals clash with your career goals
Raising the global visibility of local research


comments powered by Disqus