Why language barriers matter in conservation science

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Nowadays, almost on a daily basis, we see papers and databases that claim to cover “the globe” or “the entire world”. When I bump into these statements I always get mixed feelings.

I say mixed feelings because, on the one hand, I value those broad-scale studies and data. I am working on a global-scale dataset myself, and am also very interested in how biodiversity is distributed across the globe, where it is changing, what is causing the loss and how our countermeasures might be effective, etc. So inevitably I always start looking into the details of those studies with some excitement.

However, as I go through the paper or database, and particularly when I reach the map of where the data used originate, often proudly shown as Fig. 1 or in the supplement, I can’t help but become skeptical about the paper; is this really ALL the data they were able to collect for this study?

In some cases, I actually know the answer is no. As someone originally from Japan, I am relatively familiar with papers and datasets published in Japan, and I sometimes know for a fact that at least some of those I am aware of have not been used in the study. Quite often the reason behind this is, I suspect, language barriers, i.e., most papers and datasets published in Japanese language are not effectively compiled or used in global studies. But admittedly I understand only two languages, and couldn’t be sure how generally applicable my observation on Japanese-language studies was.

So I decided to ask native speakers of 14 other languages, from Spanish and Portuguese to Turkish and Persian, what they thought about language barriers in conservation science. One great advantage of being based in a place like Cambridge is that I was able to find those native speakers easily, mostly among my (former) colleagues. Many of them, as expected, agreed that language barriers can be a big problem in their countries.

So in our latest paper just published in PLOS Biology, I decided to further explore and discuss potential consequences of language barriers in science, focusing particularly on environmental sciences. The paper is open access and short, so please do have a read, but here is an even shorter summary:

  • Language barriers can limit the transfer of scientific knowledge in two directions: (i) when compiling knowledge in global assessments and (ii) when applying knowledge to local environmental issues, often tackled by local practitioners and policy makers.
  • For (i) we showed that up to 36% of conservation-related scientific documents in 2014 were published in non-English languages.
  • Ignoring non-English literature can also cause several biases, such as the overrepresentation of positive/statistically significant results and underrepresentation of information from countries where English is not widely spoken or knowledge generated by practitioners.
  • For (ii) we showed, as an example, that 54% of protected area directors in Spain identified languages as a barrier to the use of scientific papers for their management.
  • We provide a number of suggestions for tackling this issue. Effective approaches for compiling non-English knowledge include: involving native speakers of non-English languages in projects, and increasing the visibility of non-English literature through the development of databases for non-English journals. To facilitate the multi-lingualization of knowledge currently available in English, we propose producing translations of published papers made available as lay summaries on journals’ websites or supporting information (as we have for this paper in the form of Alternative Language Summaries), preprints and postprints.

This paper is not the first to discuss the consequences of language barriers in science. For example, see this book and this paper for a general overview, or this paper and this for discussions more specific to conservation. Nevertheless, I feel that this issue has rarely been tackled by conservation communities, despite the fact that today there are countless “global” projects collecting information globally and many conservationists try to identify and remove barriers between science and practice. To achieve a less biased synthesis of scientific knowledge, and its smooth application to on-site conservation, I think it’s about time someone spoke up and tackled this issue, and am hoping to be one of them.

So for example, if you have a figure that shows a biased distribution of data for your meta-analyses and are about to write in your paper’s draft, “data are mostly from West Europe and North America“, do consider searching for information in other languages. It might be hard for those in the West to imagine, but in Japan about 1,300 people regularly make presentations in Japanese at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society, and many of these works are published in Japanese. To take another example, in China a colleague of mine has just identified 58 journals published in Chinese (yes, FIFTY EIGHT JOURNALS) that are potentially relevant to conservation. Overlooking these information sources is, in my opinion, simply a loss to international communities.

If you have, on the other hand, conducted research relevant to countries where English is not widely spoken, and are committed to making a real difference in on-site conservation there, do consider making the knowledge you obtained available in relevant local languages. Many practitioners and policy makers whose mother tongue is not English are likely to understand English to varying degrees, but they may not have time to use dictionaries to read entire papers written in English; they might instead just rely on other, more readily understandable sources when faced with the need to make decisions immediately. Proficiency in English may improve in many countries in future, but such a change needs time. Meanwhile, most environmental issues are urgent. In order to resolve these urgent issues, we cannot afford to wait for societies to become more English proficient.

Just to emphasise, I fully recognise the importance of having a lingua franca in this era of globalisation, and the contribution of English to science through, for example, the centralisation of scientific knowledge and its role in making global communications possible. I do not mean that we should move away from using English through a wider use of other languages. What I actually want to argue is that we need scientific information to be made available to its users, such as practitioners and policy makers, in multiple languages.

It is also evident that we are already aware of the importance of cultural diversity in the conservation of biological diversity, as shown by the fact that one of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets uses linguistic diversity as an indicator. So it only seems to make sense for us to also consider more seriously the implications of having linguistic diversity for the conservation of biodiversity.

Overcoming language barriers should not be considered as an extra burden for conservation scientists. It is certainly a challenge, but a challenge worth taking on, because once achieved it could benefit both those synthesising knowledge globally and those tackling biodiversity conservation locally.

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