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The lasting language of publication?

March 9, 2023 | 3 min read

By Alison McIntosh, Christopher Tancock

Wooden alphabet tiles scattered across metallic surface

An examination of the rise of English as lingua franca of academic publishing

English, rather than the nation’s official language, is chosen as the language of publication in an increasing number of articles for several countries: that was the conclusion from a short article published in Research Trendsopens in new tab/window in 2008. (An updated version followed in 2012opens in new tab/window, analyzing articles indexed in Scopus® from 1996 to 2011.)

A preference for English

Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research has undertaken a similar investigation as in these previous reports, using Scopus journal articles from between 1996 and 2020. Figure 1 shows the ratios of the number of journal articles published in English to those published in a given nation’s official language over six consecutive four-year periods. As you will see, the ratio is increasing with time in most cases:

Graph showing ratio of the number of journal articles published by researchers in English to those in the official language of the given country from 1996 to 2020. [Source: Scopus]

Figure 1 ­- Ratio of the number of journal articles published by researchers in English to those in the official language of the given country from 1996 to 2020. [Source: Scopus]

Taking a quick look at the details, there are some interesting developments… The Netherlands has a strong tradition of publishing in English, so the ratio of English to Dutch journal articles is high: over 50:1 by 2016-20. Brazil showed a decrease in the ratio of papers published in English to those published in Portuguese between 2003 and 2011, perhaps in part due to an increase in the coverage of Brazilian journals published in Portuguese instead of English in Scopus. However, in subsequent periods this ratio more than doubled. In all countries depicted, English is now selected five times as often as the national language for journal article publication. Does this mean that English is here to stay as the language of science? These numbers notwithstanding and despite the mountain of publications in English, history teaches us that a language’s long-term place in the top spot is not necessarily guaranteed…

The language of science through the ages

Early scientists wrote in the languages of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and Greece. Subsequently, due to the expansion of the Roman Empire, Latin then gradually assumed pre-eminence and, as language of the church and nobility, remained dominant for centuries before giving way to English, French and German in the 1600s. As a result of the World Wars, the status of German declined rapidly, and German writers were increasingly shut out of international scientific discourse. (German and Austrian scientists were banned from attending conferences and from publishing in Western European journals after WWI; the USA even criminalized German in 22 states!)

In the wake of the 20th century’s wars – and given that it was already widespread as a remnant of colonialism, English became increasingly popular for academic publishing. Today, English is generally considered to be the lingua franca of the scientific community – perhaps unsurprising given that it is the world’s most studied language, is the first language of around 400 million people and the second language of up to 1.4 billion moreopens in new tab/window. Despite these impressive-sounding numbers, English nonetheless poses problems for second-language writers (and readers)opens in new tab/window. Be that as it may, a good command of English pays dividends if you want to get published (and noticed)…

Stay tuned for part II where we'll be exploring the importance of English for publication and sharing advice on how even writers whose first language isn't English can fulfill their publishing goals.