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No Pardon For Poor English in Science

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Almost any scientist will say that if you lack English fluency, your career will go nowhere. And that is probably true of those whose English skills stop at the conversational level. Some protest the dominance of English, but most accept the fact that it has become the de facto language of science.


The posting below talks about the importance of English in scientific work and what non-native English speakers can do to improve their communication. It is by freelance writer Sam Jaffe, from The Scientist - The News Journal of the Life Scientist, [], Volume 17 | Issue 5 | 44 | March 10, 2003. ? Copyright 2003, The Scientist, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Written and spoken language skills are critical to careers By Sam Jaffe


Kiyokazu Agata decided to stay in Japan for his postdoctoral fellowship, and that decision haunts him today. Not because he hasn't been able to do great science in Japan--he's now a group director of evolutionary regeneration at the prestigious Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe. But his decision to forgo study overseas means that he never got a chance to excel in English. "English is essential for scientists. Going abroad is the best way to learn it," Agata says. "In my case, I missed the chance to study in foreign countries. It's my regret."

The ironic part is that Agata can speak and write English. He has studied the language since grammar school, but that's not good enough anymore. His lack of fluency keeps him from getting invitations to speak or present papers at international functions. It also makes it difficult to do collaborative projects with American or European colleagues. Although he has published frequently in Japanese language journals, as well as in prominent English language journals (with a good dose of help in grammar and spelling correction from overseas colleagues), he says he would get much more international recognition if his English were better.

Agata isn't alone. Almost any scientist will say that if you lack English fluency, your career will go nowhere. And that is probably true of those whose English skills stop at the conversational level. Some protest the dominance of English, but most accept the fact that it has become the de facto language of science. It is hard to look past the statistics. Of the 40 most cited papers of the last five years in the database of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), not a single one was written in another language. The ISI database includes 938,004 scientific papers published in 2002; only 3% are written in languages other than English.

In countries whose languages once competed with English for dominance, the battle is over. According to papers indexed by ISI, in 1980, 53% of 28,000 papers written in France were in French. By 2000 the proportion of French-language papers had dropped to 13%. Likewise, German- language papers fell from 47% of overall papers produced in Germany in 1980 to 11% by 2000.


Clearly, in order to get recognition scientists must publish results in English. However, there is more to it than that. Researchers also need to be able to speak fluent English in order to present papers at conferences, and in some cases just to be able to communicate with employees.

Of course it has not always been this way. Over the last two millennia, science has had several different linguae francae , each one handing the torch to the next after a few centuries. Latin assumed the role from Greek after the rise of Rome, and Arabic followed during Europe's dark ages. The language torch bounced from Italian to French to Spanish over the last few centuries, until German won out during the Enlightenment. German officially lost its dominance to English with the advent of Nazism and the flight from Germany of many of its best scientists.

Why has English become so important? The geopolitical influence of the United States and its position as the single largest source of scientific funding are two obvious reasons. But there are others. The advent of the Internet, dominated by English because much of the technology was developed in the United States, and its importance as a tool for scientific communication have also been influential. Some even argue that the very structure of English lends itself to adoption as the flagship scientific language. "English has a larger vocabulary than any other language besides ancient Greek and Latin," says Mary Barkley, a biology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and also an associate editor of the journal Biochemistry. "It's easier to articulate on technical matters in English than in any other language."

Most scientists with poor English skills who often publish in English language journals rely heavily on English-speaking scientists who are also close friends. However the demands placed on the friendship can be excessive. "It's too time-consuming to work on someone else's English writing skills," says Robert Williams, chemistry professor at Colorado State University, who is a former editor of the journal Amino Acids. He stopped offering such help to colleagues when he discovered that he was spending more time on that than on doing actual science.

Helping colleagues with their English also isn't very rewarding. It would be unethical to pay a fellow scientist for editing a paper, and the submission rules of most journals make it impossible to grant authorship to someone just for fixing up the writing.

That leads many scientists to resort to paying specialty consultants just to rewrite their papers prior to submission. One such firm, Academic English, based in Japan, has edited more than 7,000 papers, in addition to thousands of other technical documents. Many American students studying in Japan, even on the undergraduate level, have paid their way by helping to write scientific papers in English. But such services cannot be expensed with institutional funds or grant money, so most often they are paid out of the scientist's pocket. And the fees, as much as $500 (US) per paper, are often too high for the average scientist.

The last hope of someone who submits a paper written in poor English is that a reviewer or the editor will take it on. "That just never happens anymore," says Barkley. "The editor doesn't really edit a paper, just assign referees and make decisions. And if every referee took it upon themselves to correct the writing of a paper, that's all they would spend their time on. If a paper comes in to me in poorly written English, I send it back. I don't want to waste anyone's time."


Even if researchers manage to publish in English, they may still run into problems at scientific meetings if their English is not perfect. "I still envy native English speakers for their presentation skills," says Wolfgang Voos, a molecular biologist at the University of Freiburg. Voos is often responsible for writing papers on collaborative research with his American colleagues, because they recognize his written English skills as being superior to their own. "I can communicate the basic science, but I can't entertain." Consequently, he gets fewer invitations to present or give keynote speeches.

Without English, a scientist lacks a crucial tool for his career, and the future doesn't portend much change as English becomes even more dominant. The next generation of scientists in non-English speaking countries might have it better than their parents, though; most scientists agree that English education in Asia and Eastern Europe has improved dramatically over the last few decades.

Even more promising, though, is the advent of automatic translation software. Anyone who has used freely available web translators such as Babelfish ( or Google's translation services ( ) can see that the technology is in its infancy: good enough to get across the meaning of a simple conversation, but nowhere near accurate enough to translate technical documents. The field is quickly developing, however. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the US Department of Defense, recently delivered a device similar to a personal digital assistant (PDA) to special-forces soldiers serving in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. The device automatically translates basic questions into Dari, Pashto, and Arabic and then translates the answers back into English, all done entirely through speech.

Unfortunately, even such bleeding-edge machine-translation projects are severely limited by processing power. Although such programs are relatively ineffective now, the inevitable rise in computing power will make them more helpful. In the meantime, the best hope for most young scientists with poor English skills is to get a tutor.

Sam Jaffe ( is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

?2003, The Scientist Inc.