Tapping into non-English-language science for the conservation of global biodiversity

Amano, T., Berdejo-Espinola, V., Christie, A.P., Willott, K., Akasaka, M., Báldi, A., et al. (2021) PLOS Biology 19(10): e3001296.

It is commonly assumed that any important scientific knowledge would be available in English, and, as a consequence, scientific knowledge used in international studies and assessments is predominantly sourced from English-language documents. But is this assumption correct? Few studies to date have quantified the contribution of science written in non-English languages to scientific communities and the application of science. This new research unveils the untapped, enormous potentials of science written in languages other than English in the conservation of global biodiversity.

This research scrutinises over 400 thousand peer-reviewed papers in 326 journals published in 16 languages, and identifies 1,234 studies that provide scientific knowledge on saving species and ecosystems. Importantly, the number of such non-English-language studies being published is increasing, found in particular in areas and for species where English-language knowledge is scarce, including Latin America and other regions where conservation is needed the most.

The findings have important implications for global efforts tackling the biodiversity crisis, where lack of evidence is a commonly faced issue when trying to implement evidence-based conservation. The research demonstrates that incorporating non-English-language studies can expand the availability of scientific evidence on saving species and ecosystems into 12-25% more areas and 5-32% more species (see figures below).

Most global studies and assessments on biodiversity report significant gaps in the availability of scientific knowledge, quite often without having explored science written in non-English languages. The findings of this research indicate that making the best use of non-English-language science can be a quick, cost-effective approach to filling such gaps, facilitating a wider application of evidence-based conservation globally.

This research also sheds light on how linguistically and culturally diverse scientific communities can maximise the contribution of science to addressing urgent global challenges.

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See the Supporting Information files for Alternative Language Abstracts in 16 languages (French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, simplified Chinese, Spanish, traditional Chinese, Turkish, and Ukrainian).

Also see our piece at The Conversation here.

Press releases are also issued in multiple languages:

The location of 1,203 non-English-language studies testing the effectiveness of conservation interventions, compared to English-language studies. Amano et al. (2021) Tapping into non-English-language science for the conservation of global biodiversity.

The number of English- and non-English-language studies testing the effectiveness of conservation interventions for each amphibian, bird, and mammal species.

Ten tips for overcoming language barriers in science

Amano, T., Rios Rojas, C., Boum II, Y., Calvo, M. and Misra, B. B. (2021) Nature Human Behaviour 5: 1119–1122

Language barriers have serious consequences in science, creating inequality for under-represented communities, making non-English-language knowledge inaccessible, and impeding the uptake of science by decision-makers. Yet language barriers in science are rarely tackled seriously enough. To change the current lack of concerted efforts, we believe scientific communities need a clear checklist for tackling and solving language barriers. Here we, as a group of non-native English speakers working in diverse scientific disciplines, have listed ten tips to help everyone in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) start tackling and solving this issue. We hope the ten tips serve as a starting point for academia in ending the lack of concerted efforts and solving this overlooked issue.

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View the ten tips in a storytelling format here.

Also see below its summary in French, Japanese and Spanish.

Culturally diverse expert teams have yet to bring comprehensive linguistic diversity to intergovernmental ecosystem assessments

Lynch et al. (2021) One Earth.

A new One Earth paper found that despite the involvement of linguistically-diverse experts in IPBES assessments, references cited were predominantly in English and comments from Anglophone reviewers were also overrepresented in those assessment reports. This indicates that the IPBES assessment outputs are disproportionately filtered through English-language literature and Anglophone experts. The paper was led by Abigail Lynch from U.S. Geological Survey and co-authored by Tatsuya from the translatE projoct.

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Graphical abstract of the paper

Monolingual searches can limit and bias results in global literature reviews

Nuñez, M.A. and Amano, T. (2021) Nature Ecology & Evolution.

A perspective article recently published in Nature Ecology & Evolution (Haddaway et al 2020) nicely reviews various problems with ecological literature reviews and provides methodological solutions to address those problems. Nevertheless, we found that a key issue was not covered by the perspective article – the need to search and analyse literature published in languages other than English. In this correspondence article, we elaborate how ignoring non-English-language literature could bias conclusions of (especially global) evidence syntheses, and propose some potential solutions to properly incorporate non-English-language literature in future literature reviews.

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Ignoring Non-English-Language Studies May Bias Ecological Meta-Analyses

Konno, K., Akasaka, M., Koshida, C., Katayama, N., Osada, N., Spake, R. and Amano, T. (2020) Ecology and Evolution.

By reanalysing existing meta-analyses including both English- and Japanese-language studies, we show that effect sizes differ significantly between English- and Japanese-language studies, causing considerable changes in overall mean effect sizes and even their direction when Japanese-language studies are excluded (see figure below). The differences in effect sizes are likely attributable to systematic differences in reported statistical results (language bias in statistical results – see diagram below) as well as study characteristics, particularly taxa and ecosystems (language bias in study characteristics), between English- and Japanese-language studies. This finding has a broad, yet simple implication: future meta-analyses—particularly those conducted at global extents or in regions where English is not widely spoken—should actively search for relevant non-English-language studies, and if appropriate, include them.

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Differences in mean effect sizes between English- (blue) and Japanese-language studies (red) included in existing ecological meta-analyses (left: Koshida & Katayama (2018) Conservation Biology, right: Osada et al. (2013) Japanese Journal of Ecology).

The fate of ignoring studies published in relevant language(s). Studies providing certain information may be more likely to be published in non-English languages (language bias in study characteristics) because, for example, those studies are often not of great interest from an international perspective. After the analysis, statistically significant or positive results may be more likely to be published in higher-impact, English-language journals (language bias in statistical results).

Languages are still a major barrier to global science

Amano, T., González-Varo, J.P. and Sutherland, W.J. (2016) PLOS Biology 14: e2000933.

This piece was our initial attempt to review how language barriers affect science in two directions: (i) when compiling knowledge globally and (ii) when applying knowledge to local environmental issues. For (i) we estimated that up to 36% of conservation-related scientific documents in 2014 were published in non-English languages (below). This clearly indicates an untapped potential of non-English-language literature as an important source of scientific knowledge. For (ii) our survey showed that 54% of protected area directors in Spain identified language as a barrier to the use of scientific papers for their management. At the end of this paper we also provide a number of suggestions for tackling this issue.

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Four barriers to the global understanding of biodiversity conservation: wealth, language, geographical location and security.

Amano, T. and Sutherland, W.J. (2013) Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Science 280: 20122649.

In this paper we found that the availability of data stored in biodiversity databases is highly geographically biased (see figure below), and the proportion of English speakers in each country partly explains the distribution, with a fewer records per area stored for countries where English is not widely spoken. This indicates that language barriers could impede scientific activities and communications at the international level. This finding served as a basis for our endeavour to further investigate consequences of language barriers in science.

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The number of records per square kilometre in four conservation/ecological databases: (a) the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, (b) the Global Population Dynamics Database, (c) MoveBank and (d) the European Union for Bird Ringing Databank.