These days it is necessary to have at least a basic level of English proficiency in most research contexts. But at the same time, our collective emphasis on English places a great burden on scientists who speak a different first language.
In research published today in PLoS Biologymy colleagues and I revealed the magnitude of the language barrier facing non-native English speaking scientists.
English has become a necessity in academic life
Scientists need to know English to obtain knowledge from the work of others, publish their findings, attend international conferences, and collaborate with their peers from around the world.
There is no doubt that this poses a significant challenge for non-native English speakers, who make up more than 90% of the world’s population.
Yet there is a surprising lack of understanding of how much effort non-native English speakers must invest to survive and thrive in their fields.
Making these barriers visible is the first step in achieving equal participation for scientists whose first language is not English.
We launched the translation project in 2019 with the aim of understanding the consequences of language barriers in science.
We surveyed 908 environmental scientists from eight countries—native and non-native English speakers—and compared the amount of effort required by individuals to complete various scientific milestones.
Big hurdles to jump
Imagine you are a non-native English speaking Ph.D. student. Based on our findings, there are several major obstacles that you need to overcome.
The first hurdle is reading papers: a necessity for scientists.
Compared to a fellow Ph.D. student who is a native English speaker, you need 91% more time to read a paper in English. This equates to an additional three weeks per year for reading the same number of papers.
The next big hurdle comes when trying to publish your own paper in English.
First, you need 51% more time to write the paper. Then you probably need someone to proofread your text, like a professional editor.
That is if you can afford them. In Colombia, for example, the cost of these services can be up to half of the average monthly salary of a Ph.D. student.
The bad news doesn’t end there. On average, your papers will still be rejected 2.6 times more often by journals. If a paper is not rejected, you will be asked to revise it 12.5 times more often than your native English-speaking counterparts.
Attending international conferences is key to developing your research network. But you might hesitate to register because “you feel uncomfortable and embarrassed to speak English”, as one of our participants told us.
If you decide to go and give a presentation, you need 94% more time to prepare it, compared to a native English speaker.
And to stay in the academy, you have to overcome all the obstacles again and again.
Language barriers have a pervasive effect
These barriers bring many disadvantages for non-native English speakers. Our study participants expressed feeling “great stress and anxiety”. They feel “incompetent and insecure”, even though they invest a lot of time and money in their work.
We can imagine how such experiences can ultimately drive people away from early scientific careers.
A particularly unhelpful and short-sighted view is that language barriers are “their problem”. Indeed, language barriers have far-reaching consequences for scientific communities more broadly, and for science itself.
Research shows that diversity in science drives innovation and impact. The scientific work done by non-native speakers of English is, and will be, necessary to solve global challenges such as the biodiversity crisis.
If it is true, “a lot of research remains unpublished because of language barriers”—as one of our participants said—we may lose many scientific contributions from many intelligent minds.
What the scientific community can do
Historically, the scientific community has rarely provided real support for non-native English speakers. However, the task of overcoming language barriers is left to the individual’s own efforts.
There are several actions that individuals, institutions, journals, funders and conference organizers can take to change this.
As a first step, journals can do more to provide academic English editing support (as evolution has begun to do so) and may accept publications in multiple languages (as does the preprint server EcoEvoRxiv).
Conference organizers also have many opportunities to support non-native English speaking participants. For example, last year’s Animal Behavior Society conference incorporated a multilingual buddy program to promote inclusivity.
Artificial intelligence (AI) may also play a role. AI is widely used by our survey participants for English editing.
The British Ecological Society recently integrated an AI language editing tool into its journal submission system. However, some journals prohibit the use of such tools.
We believe it is worth exploring how the effective and ethical use of AI can help break down language barriers, especially as it can provide free or low-cost editing to those who need it.
Time to reframe
“I wish English was my first language.”
This comment by one of our participants highlights the way that non-native English speakers in science are often viewed by themselves and the wider community: through a deficit lens. The focus is on what is missing.
We must, however, look at these people through an asset lens. By transferring information across language barriers, non-native English speakers provide a variety of perspectives otherwise inaccessible. They have an important role in contributing to the knowledge base of the people.
The scientific community urgently needs to address language barriers so that future generations of non-native English speakers can proudly contribute to science. Only then can we all enjoy the full breadth of knowledge that has been created around the world.
Tatsuya Amano et al, The high costs of being a non-native English speaker in science, PLoS Biology (2023). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002184
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