Science's English dominance hinders diversity—but the community can work toward change

Written by: Rodrigo Pérez Ortega
Published on: Oct 18, 2021

woman looking sad
Image credit: Aleksei Morozov/

When Valeria Ramírez Castañeda was a biology master's student at the University of Los Andes in Colombia, the thought of writing her thesis in English gave her a headache. Writing it in Spanish would fulfill her graduation requirement—but if she wrote it in English, it would be far easier to turn it into a paper she could immediately submit for publication. Ramírez Castañeda tried, but after weeks of frustration she gave up. "It was impossible," she says. "With the little time I had and with all the mental effort it takes to write about science, I just couldn't write it in English."

Marked by her master's experience, Ramírez Castañeda—now an evolutionary biology Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley—decided to explore the barriers and emotional burden other researchers face when publishing in a language that is not their first. The disadvantages, as reported in a paper published last month in PLOS ONE, are significant. For the 49 Colombian biologists Ramírez Castañeda surveyed, preparing a manuscript in English took on average about 12 more working days than if they were writing in Spanish. Almost half of the respondents reported having papers rejected because of their English grammar, and one-third had chosen not to attend a meeting because of anxiety about presenting in English. "We're closing knowledge for a bunch of people," Ramírez Castañeda says.

These types of struggles often live only as anecdotes and as harsh realities of the job among nonnative speakers. But Ramírez Castañeda's results add to a small yet growing body of work providing concrete evidence of how language barriers affect nonnative English speakers and hinder diversity in science.

Surveys of Mexican, Spanish-speaking scientists and Taiwanese, Mandarin Chinese-speaking researchers revealed that these authors found it significantly more difficult to write scientific articles in English than in their native tongues. Writing in English also increased their dissatisfaction and anxiety. "The results are quite clear," says David Hanauer, a linguist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the studies: English posed the same burden for both groups.

"Globally, it's almost certain that the majority of scientists are not native speakers of English," says Michael Gordin, a historian of science at Princeton University. Yet they have to learn English to communicate their work in international journals, which is key to advancing in their careers. Although having a common language offers some advantages, Gordin says, "the fairness and equality issues are significant."

For Ramírez Castañeda, the feedback from her research has reinforced her concern about the issue. "I've got friends who wrote to me saying, ‘I'm about to quit science because of English,' or, ‘I haven't been able to graduate because I can't afford the English courses,'" she says. "It's been very emotional."

So, what can the scientific community do to mend this linguistic injustice? When reviewing manuscripts, reviewers must focus on the science and not the grammar, Ramírez Castañeda and Hanauer say. Editors should stress this point when sending papers for review. Reviewers can suggest improving the English, but it shouldn't be cause for rejection. When proofreading and English editing are needed, existing publishing fees should pay for these services, Ramírez Castañeda says.

Because institutions also benefit from published papers, Ramírez Castañeda continues, they should offer translation and proofreading services to their researchers. Universities in English-speaking countries should provide international students with the necessary tools to publish in English, agrees Hanauer, especially because these students usually pay higher tuition fees than domestic students. Ramírez Castañeda also proposes that universities should offer free English lessons for science students. Today, the "responsibility" to learn English falls on the individuals, not institutions, she says, "and that can be no more."

The scientific community also needs to acknowledge and embrace work published in all languages, says Tatsuya Amano, a conservation scientist at the University of Queensland in Australia. Doing so would not only help diversify science, but would also enrich research with greater creativity and accuracy, Hanauer argues. For example, meta-analyses of biodiversity conservation papers ignore those that weren't published in English—which account for more than one-third of the total papers on the topic, according to research by Amano and colleagues. "English-speakers have become the gatekeepers of science, excluding a wide variety of opinions [and] perspectives," says Amano, whose first language is Japanese. "This is not an issue only for nonnative speakers, but [also] for native English speakers."

It's also important to expand the languages in which research is published. For example, funding agencies could mandate that publications coming out of their grants be translated into the native language of the country where most of the research took place, Gordin says. "It just requires policymakers to see it as a real issue."

All these solutions are feasible, but they require education, time, money, and will. "The reason [solutions] haven't been implemented," Gordin says, "is that the people with the most power and money—the Anglophones—they benefit from the system now without paying the price."

But movement on the issue would ultimately allow for a more diverse and equitable spread of scientific knowledge, which would only improve science overall. "A small change would make a real difference," Amano says.

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega is a science journalist covering life sciences, medicine, health, and academia.