20 December 2010

Who will fight for linguistic justice?

ResearchBlogging.orgEnglish is the de facto language of science, so those who aren’t native speakers are at a disadvantage in publishing science. A couple of letters appeared recently in TREE discussing this issue, with the first, Miguel Clavero, saying that the predominance of English has created “linguistic injustice.”

All the costs of having a common international language in science are borne by NoNES (non-native English speaking - ZF) scientists, implying unfair cooperation in obtaining a common good (i.e. a common language).

Clavero paints a somewhat lopsided picture of the costs, however.

(T)o have your publishable science published you should ask a NES (native English speaking - ZF) scientist friend to help you (bearing the risk of losing all your NES scientist friends)(.)

In Clavero’s scenario, the author is the one who is bearing all the cost: the extra time writing in a foreign language, plus the cost of alienating friends. He does not address the “cost” that a friend incurs in agreeing to help the author. I might argue that helping may not be seen by people as costs at all; as the old saying goes, “That’s what friends are for.”

Clavero would like to put much of the burden on journal editors and associated editorial staff to make sure that articles are in the best written form possible. From his letter, he does appear to have encountered many cases where English speaking editors and reviewers puts in additional time and effort to make the paper better.

In a letter in response, Guariguata and colleagues argue that the problem may not be as severe as Clavero suggests. They argue:

(T)he overall burden should not fall on the editorial teams of the journals as it is not good use of either an editor’s or reviewer’s time.

Here, I disagree somewhat. It is not just a good use of an editor’s and reviewer’s time, it is one of the things they should be expected to do.

As a reviewer myself, I do try to help authors fix wording and language issues. It often makes up most of my comments on reviews, in fact. I sometimes have to admit defeat, though, where there are just so many suggestions and corrections that I just give up. There is a point of diminishing returns.

While I accept some responsibility a reviewer, the main responsibility should reside with the authors. It shouldn’t be a secret to yourself that you didn’t grow up speaking English and don’t speak or write it on a daily basis. You should be self-aware enough to look for help. People do not become scientists by accident, after all. Researchers protesting that they have to communicate in English is little like an actor protesting that he doesn’t want to memorize lines.

That said, I do appreciate the problem that many people don’t decide they are going into scientific careers until they in their late teens or early twenties. They’re well past the stage that it’s very easy for them to learn a language. (But then, who hasn’t ignored lessons that would have helped us later, if only we’d have known?)

P.S.—I used these letters as the basis for a final exam in my biological writing class. I asked my students, “Who should bear most of the brunt for making scientific journal articles readable? The authors, editors, reviewers, or someone else?” Because I made my students write about this, it’s only fair that I do so, too.

For what it’s worth, the vast majority of my writing students thought that the authors of an article bore the most responsibility for making it readable English. A much smaller number placed the bulk of the responsibility on the journal editor. None placed the primary burden on the reviewers.


Clavero M. 2010. “Awkward wording. Rephrase”: linguistic injustice in ecological journals. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25(10): 552-553. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.07.001

Guariguata M, Sheil D, Murdiyarso, D. 2010. ‘Linguistic injustice’ is not black and white. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.11.001

Obscure geek reference: Picture of Cypher, a superhero whose power was the ability to understand all languages.


Bill Chapman said...

I hope you will allow a response from someone who has corrected the English of a few non-native speakers over the years. It is clear to me that, even when they can speak English well, those without English as a mother tongue are less subtle in their use of language than they would be in their first language.

I would like to recommend a radical solution, the wider use of Esperanto, a language deliberately planned for international use. Esperanto, which has almost no native speakers, has been used for scientific purposes for over a century. Is my suggestion too radical?

Zen Faulkes said...

There's certainly a case for that, though I think English is sort of becoming what Esperanto was meant to be.

To play devil's advocate for a second, if we were to consider using a language that had no native speakers, a better case might be made for returning to Latin. After all, it was the language of science for centuries.

Brian Barker said...

Can I add that communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

And that was how Latin was used historically.

Brian Barker

Anonymous said...


Using Latin won't alleviate the problem. The problem with English is the cost of acquisition for an almost always less-than-brilliant result; Latin, being no easier than English, would suffer from exactly the same problem. Latin's having been the language of science is no more an argument in its favor than English's currently being the language of science is for English.

The almost total absence of native Esperanto speakers is not an impediment. Esperanto is easy to learn yet expressive enough - for everyone, not just European language speakers - that mastery is within reasonable reach of everyone, the kind of mastery that would allow one to write a scientific article in perfectly clear and correct Esperanto with no help from anyone.

Zen Faulkes said...

More on the globaliaztion of English in this book review: