September 16, 2022 — Last year, Eliza Grames received an unusual request for librarians at the University of Connecticut, where she was pursuing a doctorate. in ecology and evolutionary biology. Grames, now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Nevada, Reno, wanted to find decades-old Russian-language articles on bird starvation as background for her thesis research on songbird population dynamics. What has made Grames’ request uncommon is that researchers often ignore research reports published in languages other than English.
“People will just decide they’ll only search for articles in English,” says Grames. Over the years, English has become the default language of science. Currently, more than 95% of scientific articles are published in English, and these articles receive more attention other scientists than non-English articles.
“For your ideas to be disseminated or for your discoveries to be recognized, and therefore for your credit as a scientist to be recognized, you must write in English,” explains Constantino Macías Garcia, an ecologist at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México ( UNAM).
But some scholars say ignoring non-English materials could have dire consequences for conservation. Indeed, some researchers choose to publish their findings in their own language so that policymakers and decision makers in non-English-speaking countries can find and understand them more easily, for example to guide conservation projects. A particular emphasis on research in English may lack information about certain species or habitats, which in turn may affect conservation efforts. Conservation researchers are therefore now trying to find solutions to overcome the language barrier to ensure that no crucial information is forgotten.
Laurence Bénichou, head of scientific publications at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) in Paris, noticed the tendency to publish research of value to resource managers in the vernacular in museum publications. While most of the 10 journals published by the MNHN turn to more English-language articles, the journal of ecology Nature still publishes mainly in French. “It’s because of the target audience,” says Benichou. “Naturae is aimed at managers of regional parks [in France].”
Although publishing conservation research in the language of local decision-makers helps conservation efforts, it can become a problem for scientists studying global patterns. For example, if researchers want to know how animal migration has changed over time or how climate affects breeding sites around the world, they often analyze information from many studies. These combined analyses, also known as “systematic reviews” or “meta-analyses,” can lead researchers to new insights. But it is difficult to gather information from articles written in different languages.
Tatsuya Amano, future Australian Research Council Fellow at the University of Queensland, gives an example from his own area of research: shorebird species that migrate east from Australia and New Zealand of Russia pass through many countries along the way, each with its own language. “I’m sure there are many articles published in each of these local languages on the ecology and conservation of shorebird species,” Amano says. But finding these documents and getting the relevant data is not easy.
Last year, Amano and his colleagues published a study in PLOS Biology revealing that crucial information could be missed if scientists ignored non-English publications. They found that the inclusion of non-English research articles could significantly expand the geographic areas for which data is available and potentially include scientific information on up to 32% more species.
Amano is considering a way to include these articles through a network of researchers translating relevant research. “I think it’s really effective to develop collaboration with native speakers of relevant languages,” he says. This is what he did for his non-English literature research study – he found over 60 researchers to help identify relevant information from articles in 17 languages (including English).
Translation by native or fluent speakers is currently the most reliable way to obtain information from research articles converted into other languages. For popular languages like Spanish or Chinese, Amano says it’s relatively easy to find native speakers willing to help. But translating articles is a time-consuming task — and one that comes with inequities: multilingual scientists put in overtime while monolingual English-speaking scientists continue their research.
But that could change.
One promising option is machine translation software, which is continually get better and easier to use. To gather crucial information from the Russian journal articles she found, Grames took advantage of a feature in the Google Translate phone app that allows a user to point a phone’s camera at an image. text and display the translation on the screen. Although he could only type a few words at a time, it was easier to manage than the machine translation of old documents, which were usually formatted in two columns with many words spread between the lines. “You end up with weird sentences,” she says. “Without being able to see the original side-by-side, it’s pretty much indecipherable.”
Machine translation also fails to capture the full nuance of some of the words used in scientific articles. Grames had to ask a colleague for help in trying to figure out whether a Dutch article she found described a floodplain or an underground water reservoir, because the direct translation did not specify this.
It is also possible to obtain information from research publications without translating them. In Europe, where a short train journey often crosses several linguistic regions, a new EU-funded international project, the Integrated Biodiversity Community Knowledge Library (BiCIKL)attempts to change the way biodiversity data is accessed.
Launched in May 2021 as a collaboration between 14 research institutes, botanic gardens and other organisations, BiCIKL is building a hub of biodiversity research data that all use the same format, so they can be combined, reused and read by computers and people.
The MNHN is one of the institutions involved in this project, and Benichou is optimistic about the potential for using machine-readable standards for biodiversity data. “We are trying to make sure that all machines can talk to each other and that environmentalists can find whatever they want, even if it’s written in Russian or Chinese.”
But BiCIKL is new, and there is still a lot of work to do. Grames, whose work now includes the development of better methods that scientists can use to build on existing knowledge, points out that there are many variations in the type of data collected by biodiversity research, so it could be difficult to determine what information should be included and standardized.
For now, translation remains the most accurate way to communicate biodiversity research across language borders. But adding standardized data formats could help make the data accessible to international researchers. Above all, environmentalists would still be able to publish in their local language to reach decision makers. They might see changes in the way they work, through new data format requirements, for example.
Formatting and sharing data in a new way might take some getting used to, but Amano sums up why delivering scientific information across language barriers will be worth it: “It’s important for the conservation.”