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October 11, 2017
It is only when you try to research a scientific paper using another language other than English do you realise how little access to less commercial knowledge there is in other languages, outside the top 5.
Anglophones often mistakenly assume and take for granted that accessing the world from a different language has the same volume and quality as English research. But it is not the case, the information is simply not always available in other languages.
If you are researching in a language, and the vocabulary is in English, you are already thinking in English and the result is a tendency to write and publish in English. The global inclination to publish in English is so strong that non-English native research will often write a first draft in English and later send to editing, further limiting access to scientific research in the native language.
It is almost unfeasible to research a globally important scientific research topic in a single language that is not English. For example, a research paper in Portuguese having accessed only other (likely translated) research papers in Portuguese will naturally lend itself towards a more restricted conclusion.
Depending on whether you are researching climate change, in Portuguese or English your results will vary greatly. The sheer number of publications in English compared to other languages is so great that it will inevitably impact the quality of the research. In order to access the relevant research, most scientists will have been adept and conducting research in English.
Scientific vocabulary can become English focussed in the native language, leading to a reduction in the development of local language scientific vocabulary. Many English speakers might be surprised to learn just how many modern scientific terms are kept the same rather than translated in the native language script.
Funding for translation for less commercial research is limited and at best limited to only the abstracts in other languages. Perhaps an overlooked international development strategy is to improve access to key scientific knowledge through translation.
Given the cost, fragmentation and global nature of research, is the natural monopoly of English on scientific research a cause for concern or worry? Or Is it in fact better to have all information in a single language?
The reasons for its existence are clear, but the intangible impact on global inequality and development could be an under analysed factor limiting non-western knowledge, economic and confidence growth. But as languages continue to disappear, and the few dominate, more effort may be required if access to information is to be maintained across the globe.