How Language Affects Research [Plus a Survey]

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.

How Language Affects Research

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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.


How do you publish?

We would love to hear from you about the languages that you publish in! Please answer these short questions to help us gather some data.

1. Are there local non-English journals in your region?

What the landscape of language in research looks like today:

We were already aware of the emphasis placed on international researchers to publish in English, but we wanted to get some data. How big of a part does English play in scholarly publishing? And what opportunities are available for researchers who don’t want to or don’t have the resources to publish in English?

So we set out to collect data from the DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals), which features a wealth of freely available information about the journals it indexes, and this is what we found.

Currently, there are 9,153 open access journals indexed in the DOAJ (in 43 languages). 53% of these journals are published only in English, and 47% of these journals offer an alternative language to publish in.

Many of the English-language journals are newer, with 62% only having articles going back to 2010. This could be consistent with the desire of new journals to publish in English so they can reach the broadest possible audience and get indexed in places like Scopus (which focuses heavily on English-language journals and requires at least abstracts to be in English). However, it’s clear that publications in other languages are still being created.

In addition, the chart below shows the percentage of journals that were added to the index each year between 2002 and 2016. The data is segmented between journals that publish only in English, journals that publish only in another language other than English, and journals that publish in both English and another language.

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:

Challenges of English as the preferred language in research

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:

Resources to help you publish your research when looking for a journal in any language

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.

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