How Language Affects Research

Many researchers experience pressure to publish their work in English, even if it is a challenge. Here, we discuss why and provide resources to help.

Updated on June 23, 2017

Dialogue bubbles in the shape of continents to illustrate the different languages of the world

Did you know that there are more than 7,000 spoken languages in the world?

And yet, even with all of the different languages, many researchers are under so much pressure to publish their work in English.

Why? And what can be done?

First, some background information:

We were curious why out of all the languages in the world, researchers experience undue pressure to publish primarily in one language: English.

In our research, we found that this was not always the case. In fact, if we were to look back 100 years ago, we would find that French, German, and English were the primary languages that research was communicated in. But even for centuries before that, scientists used Latin to communicate globally. They often published their work in their native language, and then published it in Latin so that it would benefit scientists in other regions.

So how did English rise to the forefront? Scientists first began publishing in Latin less, and after the World Wars, they also published in German and French less. Eventually, over time, English became the dominant language by which research was published and communicated.

Graph of open access journals added to the DOAJ by language

Although English-only journals do account for a little more than half of those currently indexed in the DOAJ, that the journals that publish in another language account for almost half, as well. We're thrilled to see some global visibility for these journals.

We also noticed that until 2010, the number of open access journals that were indexed that offer an alternative language to English exceeded the number of journals that publish only in English. English-only journals seem to have just taken the lead on indexing over alternative language journals in the last 7 years.

The trend will be interesting to watch, but if journals continue to expand the number of languages that they offer publication in, research can be shared more broadly.

The challenges that come with English being the dominant language in research:

the United Kingdom's flag representing the English language

Have you ever tried asking for directions from someone who did not speak the same language as you? How did it go? It likely would have been a little easier if you both shared a language.

Considering that in-person interactions are challenging when the other person doesn't speak the same language, written communication is even more difficult. Additionally, having a complicated language like English as the foundation for communicating research adds to the challenge of non-native English researchers being able to share their work globally.

With English being largely the preferred language for the research atmosphere, it is easy to understand that there are dynamics beyond writing the research manuscript that are affected by this.

For instance, communicating with journal editors and reviewers can be especially challenging. Many of these interactions take place electronically, which already makes it hard to understand a person's tone. When the language is confusing (for either participant), that can further contribute to a rocky interaction.

Researcher conferences are another aspect that can be impacted by having English as the central language. There are many benefits of conferences, some of which include poster presentations, teaching sessions, and of course, networking. But many research conferences are conducted in solely in English, which makes it difficult for anyone whose native language is not English.

Good research is being done all over the world, by native English researchers and non-native English researchers. What is most unfortunate is when language is a barrier for that work to be widely shared and understood by others.

How to overcome the pressure to publish your research in English:

flowchart of flags showing research connecting in many languages

One of the reasons international researchers want to publish their work in English is because many notable journals are published in English, and having their manuscript accepted can be critical for career advancement.

However, it's important to remember that there are also great journals published in other languages, and you may be able to find one in your native language. If you can, this can help alleviate the pressure to publish your work in English.

Here are some things to consider when looking for any journal, in English or in any language.

1. Consider the benefits of publishing in a regional journal.

Having your manuscript published in a regional scholarly journal can eliminate barriers in international publishing. If your work is especially relevant to your region where other researchers would benefit from reading it, this may be an option you want to think about.

2. Research journals to try to choose the right one for your research.

Deciding which journal to submit your manuscript to can be difficult for any researcher. However, looking through a journal's guidelines, the aims and scope, and their past articles can be a good starting point to determine if the journal would be a good match for your research.

3. Learn how to identify predatory journals, particularly open access ones.

As you search for journals, you will likely decide between publishing in an open access or a traditional journal. There are many benefits to publishing your research in open access journals, and there are many credible OA journals. However, predatory publishing has increased in recent years, so it's important to know what to look out for.

Resources if you do want to publish your manuscript in English:

Resources to help you publish your research manuscript in English

If you decide that you want to publish your manuscript in English, here are some tips for writing, English editing, and other resources.

1. Remember to maintain a formal tone.

Writing in English for a scientific or academic journal can differ from speaking in English. Be sure not to use phrases that are too informal or casual. A thesaurus can be a great tool to help find words that are concise and have a more formal tone.

2. Don't use hedge terms too often.

Hedge terms are words that make the author sound uncertain. Using hedge terms when discussing new data is common. However, if you reference literature that is widely accepted in your area of study, use words that are more definitive and certain.

3. Write shorter sentences.

Shorter sentences in English are more concise and easier to read. Have you ever tried shortening a sentence? The activity is challenging, but the result is often that your idea is communicated more directly. If you usually write longer sentences to pack in a lot of information, try turning them into two or three shorter sentences. Your readers will thank you.

4. Have a colleague review your manuscript.

If you have a colleague whose native language is English or who has had research manuscripts accepted in English journals, ask them to review and edit your manuscript. They will likely have good suggestions, and doing this before you submit to the journal can be very helpful. Consider using this template for developmental editing of a scientific manuscript.

5. Consider using a translation or editing service.

Using a translation or editing service to refine the grammar, spelling, and word choice will improve your manuscript and can help you make a good first impression on journal editors. Some services provide the option of unlimited English re-editing. At AJE, unlimited re-editing is included in our Academic Translation service and in our Premium Editing service.

Whether you decide to publish your research in English or in another language, the important thing is that you are sharing your findings with the research community. By doing that, you are moving science and society forward. Ultimately, we know that the true language of research is not a specific alphabet, but a desire for discovery enabled by rigorous, data-driven methods.

Thanks to Ben Mudrak for contributing to this article.

Peer Review and PublicationIndustry InsightsScholarly Publishing InsightsOpen accessTranslationLanguage editingConcise writingFormal toneCommunicating with editorsJournal submission
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