Dominance of English resulting in 'lost scientific knowledge'
A campaign has been launched by German academics aimed at encouraging scientific papers to be published in languages other than English amid fears that knowledge might be being lost because of the dominance of one language.
The campaign argues that science benefits from being approached through different languages but that researchers whose first language is not English are often obliged to subscribe to Anglo-American theories in order to get published in major international journals.
According to the latest statistics, 96 per cent of scientific papers published worldwide in scientific journals recognised by Journal Citation Reports are in English.
Dr Rainer Enrique Hamel, a professor of linguistics and author of several papers on the use of English in science, says that the current dominance of the language compares to the fact that, by the end of the 19th century, only 36 per cent of papers were in English.
"Throughout the 20th century, international communication shifted from a plural use of several languages to a clear pre-eminence of English, especially in the field of science," he wrote.
"The central question is whether the actual hegemony of English will create a total monopoly, at least at an international level, or if changing global conditions and language policies may allow alternative solutions."
ADAWIS, the German campaign against the predominance of English, says that national congresses, symposia or meetings with predominantly or even exclusively German-speaking participants often take place only in English these days. It also points out that German universities are increasingly adopting courses conducted in English and that funding for German-language research proposals is often refused.
Professor Ralph Mocikat, a molecular immunologist who chairs ADAWIS, told the BBC that individual languages use different patterns of "argumentation" – the way that conclusions are reached from debate and examining evidence.
He said, "the argumentation is more linear in English-language papers, whereas the German grammar facilitates cross and back references". He said academics often use metaphors from everyday language when making an argument or trying to solve a problem, and these cannot always be directly translated.
"Thought is formed by language. This is why language plays a crucial role in the progress of science," he added.
"Scientists such as Galileo, Newton and Lagrange abandoned scholarly Latin, which was universal, in favour of their respective vernacular. Ordinary language is science's prime resource, and the reintroduction of a linguistic monoculture will throw global science back to the dark ages."
Prof Mary Jane Curry of the University of Rochester in the US, and Prof Theresa Lillis, of the Open University in the UK, conducted a study of how the dominance of English journals has affected research from southern and central Europe, and concluded the "gatekeeping" of an English-language journal influenced the content of research, bringing it in line with established Anglophone theories.
Prof Winfried Thielmann, a linguist at the Technical University of Chemnitz and member of ADAWIS, said, "Scientific history is currently being rewritten at the expense of those who had the misfortune of publishing their insights in a language other than English."
He said journals mainly accept papers that use American theories and terminology, which means there is less incentive for researchers to develop alternative ideas in languages other than English. "In my view, this was one of the reasons European economists did not have a lot to contribute to the management of the last financial crisis," he added.
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