When more is more: A DORA Community Discussion on Multilingualism in Scholarly Communication

This blog is part one in a 2-part series on multilingualism in scholarly communication.

The globalization of research has led to the simultaneous rise of English as the recognized language of scholarship and the decline of national and local languages in scholarly communication. Yet disseminating research in diverse languages allows geographically and culturally relevant research results to be accessible to regional actors, creating impact and fostering interactions between science and society. In recent years, research evaluation systems, often relying on global bibliometric indices, have evolved to favor outputs in the modern lingua franca, English. Having a lingua franca has benefited academia: it has enabled collaboration, knowledge sharing and international debate across cultures. However, the requirement to communicate in English is also viewed as a form of marginalization, and not fitting to all the purposes of scholarship (such as informing the public and decision makers in all—not just anglophone—countries).  In recent years, the global research community has begun to question the robustness of a system that prefers one language over others. This has resulted in numerous calls to action, such as the Helsinki Initiative which draws attention to the importance of multilingualism and ‘bibliodiversity’ in scholarship.

There is a clear need for the international research community to resolve the challenges posed by the current system which favors English-language scholarship. DORA seeks to help the international research community improve research assessment across all scholarly disciplines. Undoubtedly, evaluation and rewards processes influence scholars’ decisions regarding how, where and in what languages they publish. Studies indicate that papers published in languages other than English tend to receive fewer citations than English-language publications. If scholars opt to publish in English instead of other languages because they believe their careers depend on it, both academia and society can suffer.  In an ideal world, researchers would feel free to communicate findings to target audiences in whichever language best fits this purpose. An optimally designed research evaluation system would recognize the importance of linguistic diversity in scholarly communication, enable scholars to publish in native languages, reward scholars for work in all languages and release researchers from the pressure to ‘publish in English or perish’.

To promote discussion of these challenges, DORA hosted a webinar on ‘Recognizing multilingual scholarly outputs in academic assessment’ on August 13, 2020. In this webinar, a panel of experts explored the importance of local-language publications, the problems caused by favoring English language publications and the benefits of valuing all scholarly works in evaluation procedures. The panelists included Serhii Nazarovets of The State Scientific and Technical Library of Ukraine, Zehra Taşkın of Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland and Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou of the University of Ottawa, Canada. The panel was moderated by Helen Sitar, Science Policy Program Officer at EMBO and DORA’s Community Coordinator. Anna Hatch, DORA’s Program Director, provided updates on DORA’s latest work.

The webinar began with a discussion of the benefits of scholarship in native and national languages to both local communities and the international community. Zehra Taşkın provided an example of an instance where publications in the local language help local communities. The Polish silviculture industry relies on Polish-language studies of the forests which cover 8.6M ha (about 28%) of the country’s surface, many of which are published in the journal Sylwan. When locally relevant studies are published in the local language, findings can be utilized directly; if published in a non-national language, the local community may be barred from having direct access to scientific analyses. On the level of public understanding, Zehra pointed out that articles published in local languages can play a role in combatting misinformation and public misconceptions. Particularly during uncertain times such as the COVID-19 crisis, Zehra believes that having research published in the language of the public is especially important.

Thomas Mboa pointed out a benefit of linguistic freedom—researchers may be better able to express unique ideas in their native languages. When one must write in another language, he explained, the act of self-translation can cause us to “lose the essence of what we are trying to say.” Conversely, writing in a native language allows researchers to be exact in their scholarship and communication with each other. The choice of publishing language is particularly important in the social sciences and humanities, and observed publication patterns vary between academic disciplines and countries.

Another discussion theme was the relatedness of language and justice in scholarly communication and evaluation. Serhii Nazarovets strongly believes that “no language is more valuable than any others.” Serhii pointed out that Nobel Prize winners have published in more than 25 languages, and that only about 25% of the works for which Prize winners were rewarded were actually published in English. If we would only be looking at English language publications for great insights, we would be missing out on a lot of knowledge. He explained the inherent ‘linguistic injustice’ of a system dominated by English-language outputs: native English speakers have a significant advantage, while non-native speakers must first “invest time, effort and resources to learn the language.” He also cited a study which indicated that non-native English speakers often feel that editors and reviewers are biased about any language deficiencies.

Continuing with the topic of injustices tied to language, Thomas Mboa described his perspective as an African researcher, educated and working in a system using colonial languages, to the exclusion of his native language. “We come upon a set of obstacles, which prevent our adoption of open science in Africa. We call these ‘cognitive injustices’ and language is one of them.” For Thomas, the very important question of which language to use in scholarly communication in Africa is tied to colonial legacies. “In academia—even if we are talking about multilingualism—we are still using colonial languages: French, English, Arabic, Spanish or Portuguese.” Thomas pointed out that grassroots initiatives, such as AfricArXiv, which publishes African pre-prints, and platforms such as ‘Le Grenier des savoirs’ which publishes Open Access articles in native languages, are addressing these issues by including works in native African languages like Swahili and Yoruba.

Zehra emphasized the importance of well-designed research policies, and the corresponding danger of policies that may unintentionally undermine multilingualism in scholarly communication. She illustrated this with an example from Turkey: the national tenure and reward mechanisms established by the Council of Higher Education explicitly encourages scholars in Turkey to publish their papers in journals with high impact factors. Under the current evaluation policy, publishing a paper in a Web of Science indexed journal provides 20 points to the scholars while papers in national journals provide eight points. Although it is obligatory to publish at least three articles in national journals in the policy, she believes the result of this reward system is the general decline in the quality of work submitted to national-language journals. An effect of this has been that researchers choose the language of their articles based on the novelty and rigor of their work (and thus a self-assessment of chances of being published in an international journal), instead of considering their target audience. Zehra sees this as harming national scientific practices. Poorly conceptualized research policies can result in misalignment, confusion and wasted efforts.

The panel concurred that imposing a western value system for evaluation on non-western researchers is flawed and unfair. Thomas noted that some African universities assess researchers using metrics, such as the Impact Factor, which are known to be misused and biased towards western publications. Unfortunately, many international citation indexes do a better job indexing work in English than in other languages. By applying these metrics in the non-Western context, Thomas sees these universities as disadvantaging scholars who do not have the same levels of privilege as those in the western system. It can be very expensive to publish in high impact factor journals, such that publishing in these journals is financially impossible for them. In this sense, relying on metrics which have a bias for English language publications perpetuates historic power structures that continue to disenfranchise groups of researchers. Serhii echoed this in his reflection on the system in the Ukraine: “Metrics, such as the Journal Impact Factor, h-index, or number of citations,” he explained, “are obtained based on indexes of mainly English-language publications. These metrics are commonly used by universities, administrations and grant providers as ‘objective’ indicators of research quality when making appointment, promotion, and funding decisions, even though the reliability of the metrics as indicators of quality has never been confirmed in the scientific literature.” He sees it as easier for the average Ukrainian researcher to ‘play the game’ of pursuing career-enhancing metrics than it is to argue with administrators or to try to take down a system reliant on metrics.

To be able to comprehensively evaluate the knowledge production of researchers who publish in numerous languages, alternatives are needed. National language citation indexes are one option for addressing the need for quantitative indicators for evaluation. These can make up for the blind spots in general citation indexes by thoroughly cataloging publications in national languages. Serhii, with a background in bibliometrics and library science, described his work in developing the Ukrainian Open Citation Index, a citation index which uses Crossref data and thus covers documents in different languages. Another option for more comprehensive evaluation is using qualitative evaluations, which Thomas advocated as being particularly powerful in the African context. While time consuming, qualitative evaluations redirect the focus of evaluations from pedigree and journal names to the achievements of the individual in the activity areas (e.g. mentoring, teaching or public speaking) that are relevant to the assessment process at hand.

When we as a global community talk about changing policies to encourage internationalization, it is important to first understand what is at stake. As Thomas pointed out, these issues are old, and “we aren’t going to be able to reinvent this. Instead we need to be sensitive to what we are doing.” The evaluation, assessment and rewards systems set incentives for scholars to conduct their work in particular ways, which can include incentives for publishing in English, even when this might not be the most relevant publication avenue for their discipline. Serhii hopes that there will be “no competition between languages” in the future. Zehra’s advice provides a simple starting point: “leave the numbers behind and focus on the content of the research!” If the global academic community seeks to create a research system that is equitable, inclusive, and produces the best quality scholarship possible, it would be wise to address the global community’s concerns and to support multilingualism in scholarly communication.

Helen Sitar is the community coordinator for DORA and a Science Policy Programme Officer at EMBO.

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