Thirteen years ago, a deadly strain of avian flu known as H5N1 was tearing through Asia's bird populations. In January 2004, Chinese scientists reported that pigs too had become infected with the virus—an alarming development, since pigs are susceptible to human viruses and could potentially act as a "mixing vessel" that would allow the virus to jump to humans.
Yet at the time, little attention was paid outside of China—because the study was published only in Chinese, in a small Chinese journal of veterinary medicine. It wasn't until August of that year that the World Health Organization and the United Nations learned of the study's results and rushed to have it translated.
Those scientists and policy makers ran headlong into one of science's biggest unsolved dilemmas: language. A new study in the journal PLOS Biology sheds light on how widespread the gulf can be between English-language science and any-other-language science, and how that gap can lead to situations like the avian flu case, or worse.
"Native English speakers tend to assume that all important information is in English," says Tatsuya Amano, a zoology researcher at the University of Cambridge and lead author on this study. Yet particularly when it comes to work about biodiversity and conservation, Amano says, much of the most important data is collected and published by researchers in the countries where exotic or endangered species live—not just the United States or England. This can lead to oversights of important statistics or critical breakthroughs by international organizations, or even scientists unnecessarily duplicating research that has already been done.
Even for people who try not to ignore research published in non-English languages, Amano says, difficulties exist. More than half of the non-English papers observed in this study had no English title, abstract or keywords, making them all but invisible to most scientists doing database searches in English.
It's also worrisome that English has become so prestigious for scientists that many non-English speakers avoid publishing research in their own languages, Amano says. Federico Kukso, a MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow who has reported on science in Spanish and English for more than 15 years, says the bias extends beyond how scientists view studies; it also manifests in what science the media chooses to focus on.
Amano thinks that journals and scientific academies working to include international voices is one of the best solutions to this language gap.