20 February 2024
Is English mandatory for scientific success?
Published online 11 September 2023
Study reveals level of disadvantage for non-native English-speaking researchers
A study in PLOS Biology found that non-native English-speaking researchers face disproportionate costs and obstacles throughout their careers, because English is not their first language.
The researchers surveyed 908 environmental scientists from eight countries from different linguistic and economic backgrounds to compare the effort required by individuals to conduct a variety of scientific activities in English. The survey revealed clear and substantial disadvantages for non-native English speakers. Compared to their peers, non-native English speakers need up to twice as much time to read and write papers and prepare presentations in English.
Papers written by non-native English speakers are 2.5 times more likely to be rejected and 12.5 times more likely to receive a request for revision, simply because of questions over the quality of written English.
Many non-native English speakers also shy away from attending and presenting at international conferences, the study suggests, because they are not confident communicating in English.
Historical, social, and political factors
It is now estimated that more than 90% of scientific papers are published in English, regardless of the authors’ native language.
The widespread adoption of a common language has facilitated knowledge circulation and cross-border cooperation, allowing researchers from different countries to access and build on each other’s work. For researchers seeking professional advancement and recognition, fluency in English is now essential.
Researchers must submit manuscripts in English for publication, and communicating with fellow researchers at conferences demands a certain level of fluency in English. Such prerequisites can create additional obstacles for researchers who lack proficiency in the language.
This is especially true for scientists from developing countries or countries where proficiency in English is uncommon. For those scientists, the language barrier entails a unique set of challenges, limiting their ability to contribute to scientific discourse, publish their research findings, or access funding opportunities. The research community may be missing out on valuable insights, different methodologies, and local knowledge that can contribute to unlocking a more comprehensive understanding of the world.
Islam Mosa, a biochemist and principal investigator at the University of Connecticut, spoke to Nature Middle East about his early experience after moving from Egypt to the United States. “My first paper was rejected. The reviewer noted that my language was poor and suggested seeking assistance from native English-speaking colleagues to rewrite the paper,” he says.
“My colleagues from the United States were faster readers. When I first started, reading a single paper would take me two whole days, unlike American, British, or Australian colleagues who could run through five papers in one hour”.
Today, serving as an editor and a reviewer for leading journals in his field, Mosa says: “I understand where the reviewer was coming from with that comment and why the paper was rejected. Now, I know that a manuscript’s quality is at least partially determined by language. In fact, asking reviewers to evaluate language is, inevitably, part of the process.”
The language of science
“English is the language of science, which means that reading and understanding scientific articles is bound to be a struggle for non-natives”, says Maher El-Kady, a researcher at the University of California in Los Angeles, who originally comes from Egypt.
El-Kady recalls: “I come from a village in Giza, where I exclusively attended schools that paid very little attention to teaching English. And so, when I received a PhD scholarship, I had several mountains to climb”.
Language was not El-Kady’s only problem. Different cultures, as he came to find out, have developed varying approaches to research. “The challenge facing a researcher from China, for example, is not only linguistic but also cultural”. “This researcher is doing science that was conceived in an entirely different context, informed in part by a foreign language, so even writing well in English does not always guarantee that a researcher fully grasps the intricacies of their own research,” El-Kady notes.
Some journals and conference committees have moved to provide researchers with translation services or accept submission of manuscripts written in languages other than English. Additionally, there are different initiatives now that aim to offer English courses and other forms of language support to non-native scientists, while acknowledging the need for promoting equal opportunity and inclusivity in scientific communication.
“Funding bodies and research institutions should provide researchers with the support they need to enrol in English language courses before traveling abroad,”, says El-Kady. “I benefitted from such support when I received a scholarship to study English before heading to the United States. It was a game-changer for my academic journey.”
There is a growing recognition that scientific progress should not be defined and measured exclusively by English-language publications. At the same time, calls for multilingualism in the sciences have gained momentum with demands to include more regional languages and improve diversity and equal participation.
“It is important to balance the benefits of establishing a universal language for science with the need for inclusivity,” El-Kady says.
Mohamed Ateia, a researcher at the US Environmental Protection Agency, thinks the extent to which English language proficiency requirements affect career trajectories largely depends on where scientists live. “In some countries—such as Germany, Japan, Korea, and France—researchers have the opportunity to study and build a thriving career in academia without being fluent in English because, with resources readily available in their native language, they can access and harness knowledge just as readily”.
Meanwhile, in countries that lack such capabilities—and “particularly in cases where new and meaningful local research output is missing and efforts to import existing output via translation are limited, consulting English-language resources is generally the only solution available,” Ateia says.
For Ateia, the study’s results are spot-on. “Having entered partnerships involving researchers from several countries”, he explains, “it is hard to ignore the significant difference in quality and the glaring chasm between papers written by researchers born or trained in English-speaking countries and those written by researchers from elsewhere.”
Similarly, Ateia notes, “you will find great difficulty in following a conference presentation made by a researcher who is not fluent in English, regardless of how solid the research output and scientific content being presented actually are”.
Tatsuya Amano, a researcher at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, in Australia, and the first author of the study, wrote that “the issue is that we have done almost nothing as a community, and instead relied on individuals’ own efforts to tackle this problem”.
“To date, being fluent in English has been a ticket to enter the world of academia,” said Amano. “We must abandon this old system. Anyone in any part of the world should be able to participate in science and contribute to accumulating humanity’s knowledge”.