Summary: An international survey reveals a substantial disadvantage for non-native English speakers in scientific research.
The study, which involved 908 environmental science researchers, found non-native speakers needed twice as much time for scientific activities, including reading, writing, publication, dissemination, and conference participation. Furthermore, their research papers faced higher rejection and revision rates, while language barriers also led to decreased conference participation.
These disparities represent a significant loss of potential contributions to science and reinforce the urgent need for improved support for non-native English speakers in academia.
Non-native English speakers in scientific fields take twice as much time as native speakers to conduct scientific activities, and their papers face higher rejection and revision rates.
One-third of non-native English speakers forego attending international conferences, and half avoid presenting due to lack of confidence in their English communication skills.
The study calls for more robust support mechanisms, such as language editing services by journals and performance evaluations that account for these disadvantages.
Source: Univesity of Queensland
A “clear and significant” language barrier cost faced by non-native English-speaking scientists has been quantified by a University of Queensland-led international survey.
The study, led by UQ’s Dr Tatsuya Amano, surveyed 908 environmental science researchers on scientific activities across five categories – paper reading, writing, publication, dissemination, and conference participation – finding a substantial disadvantage for non-native English speakers in all five.
“Compared to native English speakers, non-native English speakers need up to twice as much time to conduct each of these activities,” Dr Amano said.
“Their papers are also rejected two-and-a-half times more and requested to be revised twelve-and-a-half times more.
“These challenges put non-native English speakers at a particularly significant disadvantage, as paper publication is already quite a stressful process for many.
“We were also surprised to find one-third give up attending, and half give up presenting at, international conferences just because they aren’t confident in English communication.
“Conferences provide important opportunities to develop your research network, so this language barrier is causing many promising careers to stagnate.”
Researchers are concerned that these barriers have been driving many non-native English speakers to drop out of scientific careers at an early stage.
“This is a serious problem in academia in terms of equity, but also an immense loss to scientific communities,” Dr Amano said.
“We are potentially losing a huge contribution to science from a massive number of people, simply because their first language isn’t English.”
Researchers say unlocking the potential of disadvantaged communities is one of the urgent challenges in science today.
“We already know that collaboration involving a diverse group of people can better solve problems and deliver higher levels of scientific innovation and impacts,” Dr Amano said.
“As we face down several global issues, such as biodiversity and climate crises, the need to tap into a diversity of people, views, knowledge systems, and solutions is more important than ever.”
As part of the study, the internationally collaborative project outlined several ways the scientific community can help resolve the mounting problem.
“Anyone can do a wide range of things to support non-native English speakers – if you’re a supervisor, you should acknowledge these disadvantages and provide financial, logistical, and mental support,” Dr Amano said.
“While many institutions provide training opportunities, they should be more diligent in accounting for these disadvantages when evaluating the performance of non-native English speakers.
“As the gatekeepers of science, many journals should also be doing more to proactively tackle this issue, for example, by providing free language editing support and more broadly supporting the multilingualisation of science.
“For ages, being fluent in English has been the ticket to the world of academia.
“We need to move away from this old view so that anyone, anywhere in the world can thrive and shine in academia.”
The manifold costs of being a non-native English speaker in science
The use of English as the common language of science represents a major impediment to maximising the contribution of non-native English speakers to science. Yet few studies have quantified the consequences of language barriers on the career development of researchers who are non-native English speakers.
By surveying 908 researchers in environmental sciences, this study estimates and compares the amount of effort required to conduct scientific activities in English between researchers from different countries and, thus, different linguistic and economic backgrounds.
Our survey demonstrates that non-native English speakers, especially early in their careers, spend more effort than native English speakers in conducting scientific activities, from reading and writing papers and preparing presentations in English, to disseminating research in multiple languages. Language barriers can also cause them not to attend, or give oral presentations at, international conferences conducted in English.
We urge scientific communities to recognise and tackle these disadvantages to release the untapped potential of non-native English speakers in science.
This study also proposes potential solutions that can be implemented today by individuals, institutions, journals, funders, and conferences.