English serves as a practical and widely used language in science. Nevertheless, this poses big obstacles for individuals whose primary language is not English — a new study highlighted how big these problems are. Researchers looked at the disadvantages, which range from difficulties in reading and writing papers to a limited role in international conferences.
So far, only a limited number of studies have attempted to measure the many barriers associated with being a non-native English speaker in science. To address this, a team at the University of Queensland surveyed over 900 environmental scientists from eight countries, comparing the effort required for them to do scientific activities in English.
The eight countries — Bangladesh, Bolivia, England, Japan, Nepal, Nigeria, Spain and Ukraine — were chosen based on their English proficiency (low, moderate, and native) and income level. The scientists were asked how much time they needed to do five science activities: paper reading, writing, publication, and conference participation.
“The scientific community has rarely provided support for non-native English speakers and we thought that making the disadvantages visible would be the first step towards addressing this,” Tatsuya Amano, study author, told ZME Science. “We are potentially losing a huge contribution to science from a massive number of people.”
Looking into the barriers
Tatsuya Amano, a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, started with colleagues at the university in 2019 the translatE project, which aims to understand the consequences of language barriers in science. “We were keen to quantify the level of disadvantages for non-native English speakers in science,” Amano told ZME Science.
In their new study, they found clear and significant disadvantages for non-native English speakers. When compared to native speakers, they need up to twice as much time to read and write papers and presentations in English. Their papers are 2.5 times more likely to be rejected and 12.5 times more likely to be requested for revision.
“Many of them also give up attending and presenting at international conferences because they are not confident communicating in English,” Amano told ZME Science. “These language barriers are undoubtedly huge impediments for non-native English speakers to develop their career in science, and more importantly to stay in academia.”
The disadvantages could be even greater as there were aspects not considered in the study. The researchers didn’t quantify the mental stress linked with the extra time, cost and effort caused by language barriers. Non-native English speakers could also face the dilemma of deciding between adapting to do science in English or continuing to work in their first languages.
The findings have big implications for global efforts to create a more inclusive academia, the authors said. The researchers found these disadvantages especially affect researchers at an early stage and from lower-income countries. Unless the barriers aren’t broken down, we won’t achieve fair participation for non-native English speakers in science.
Looking ahead, the researchers asked for a concerted effort to reduce the disadvantages for non-native speakers. Possible solutions include journals providing free English editing, supervisors acknowledging the difficulties faced by their students and funders giving financial support to efforts working towards overcoming barriers.
“The scientific community needs to distinguish the quality of science and the quality of English, when evaluating their science. We should also recognize that supporting non-native English speakers would benefit the scientific community, given their indispensable role in bringing diverse views,” Amano told ZME Science.
The study was published in the journal PLOS Biology.
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