Scholars whose language differs from English ‘struggle to publish’

Universities in countries that speak Dutch or German found to have higher research performance scores than those in Japan 

April 19, 2024
Tokyo street signs in Japanese and English
Source: iStock/kuponjabah

Universities based in countries where the local language is very different from English find it more difficult to get research published in top journals when compared with those in countries where the language is more similar, according to a new study.

While it has long been known that non-English speakers find it harder to publish their work, the new paper in Research Policy shows that the nature of the language a researcher speaks might also be a determining factor.

Universities based in countries where people speak Dutch, Swedish or German – all languages that have characteristics similar to those of English – tended to have higher research quality scores than those in nations such as Japan and Finland, whose languages diverge more strongly from English.

Research performance was measured through the number of publications in the most influential academic journals, and linguistic differences were judged using an online tool.

Even in multilingual countries – where universities are governed by the same national policies – the study found statistical differences. For example, in Belgium, the universities based in Dutch-speaking regions had research performance scores 12 per cent higher than those in French-speaking regions across all academic subjects.

The researchers – Yihui Cao from the University of Westminster, Robin Sickles from Rice University, Texas, Thomas Triebs from Loughborough University and Justin Tumlinson from the University of Exeter – found that small variations from English in local languages had a large effect: a 1 per cent increase in language distance resulted in 0.2 per cent fewer published papers.

They said the findings were further evidence that the “research playing field for nations, universities and individual researchers is uneven”.

The findings were found to be robust even when controlling for factors including the proportion of international staff at the university, a country’s economic development, youth academic achievement, university degree-issuing rate, and trade with and geographic distance from English-speaking countries.

While improving early education in English and shifting to teaching in English might help universities improve their research performance, the researchers cautioned that “such policy changes have costs”.

“More English training would crowd out other subjects,” they write. “Several governments, eg in Belgium and China, now restrict the amount of teaching in English to address local employers’ demands for local language skills and domestic educational inequalities.”

Co-author Dr Tumlinson, an associate professor in business analytics, said that he hoped the findings “can inform more equitable and effective strategies for fostering research excellence on a global scale”.

“We urge policymakers to consider these findings when balancing trade-offs between embracing English and the cultural and regional labour market pressures to conform to the local language,” Dr Tumlinson added.

“Our research also asks questions about the influence of English proficiency on the evaluation of research performance, and whether metrics should include a broader range of factors.”

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