The challenges of the 21st century—including the conservation of global biodiversity—can only be addressed with a solid base of scientific evidence. However, two types of gaps in the process of information use have hampered the contribution of science to halting global biodiversity loss: severe gaps in available information e.g., over space, time, taxa and data types, and the research-implementation gap, i.e., scientific knowledge not being used effectively in policies and practices.

A number of barriers have been identified as factors creating these gaps in scientific information use, yet there is an important driver that has almost completely been overlooked – language barriers. English plays an irreplaceable role as a lingua franca in global scientific communication. But it is also true that most scientists and users of scientific information whose mother tongue is not English also continue to produce knowledge and communicate it in languages other than English. Thus, language has the potential to critically limit the transfer of knowledge in environmental sciences in two directions: (1) when compiling scientific knowledge globally, as language barriers create gaps in information made available internationally, and (2) when applying knowledge to local environmental issues, through the research-implementation gap.

Moreover, needless to say, language barriers continue to pose severe disadvantages for non-native English speakers pursuing academic careers. As a result, the untapped potential of non-native English speakers in contributing to tackling global challenges like the biodiversity crisis, climate change, and pandemics, cannot be realised.

What we do

The translatE project applies scientific approaches to address language barriers in environmental sciences, with the aim of maximising scientific contribution to global biodiversity conservation. More specifically, the project aims to achieve the following objectives:

  • Language barriers to the global compilation of scientific information on biodiversity conservation.
    • Investigating the use of non-English-language scientific knowledge in environmental evidence syntheses and its consequences.
    • Testing systematic biases in scientific knowledge published in different languages.
    • Exploring possibilities of automated search systems to help identify important non-English-language literature.
  • Language barriers to the local application of scientific knowledge on biodiversity conservation.
    • Investigating the use of scientific knowledge available in different languages in local decision making.
    • Understanding the impact of language barriers on the use of scientific knowledge in local decision making.
    • Testing the effectiveness of machine/human translations for the uptake of scientific information.
  • Language barriers to the career development of non-native English speakers.
    • Quantifying multiple disadvantages faced by non-native English speakers
    • Exploring different ways of addressing language barriers to academic publishing

Credit: Toby Smith / Cambridge Conservation Initiative

Key findings

So far we have shown:

  • 27 non-English-language studies (in Portuguese, Spanish, simplified Chinese, or traditional Chinese), compared to 186 English-language studies, provide data on amphibian heat tolerance (Pottier et al. 2022. Scientific Data).
  • A large number of languages are spoken within the distribution of each bird species, e.g., 1,587 bird species have 10 languages or more spoken within their distributions (Negret et al. 2022. PLOS ONE).
  • The number of non-English-language articles on conservation published per year is increasing, at a rate similar to English-language articles (Chowdhury et al. 2022. Conservation Biology)
  • A potential solution to overcoming language barriers in science through developing a platform for facilitating the exchange of language skills among researchers (Khelifa et al. 2021. Trends in Ecology & Evolution)
  • 1,234 non-English-language studies provide evidence on the effectiveness of biodiversity conservation interventions (Amano et al. 2021. PLOS Biology)
  • Non-Egnlish-language studies providing evidence on the effectiveness of conservaiton interventions are being published at an increasing rate (Amano et al. 2021. PLOS Biology)
  • Incorporating non-English-language studies can expand the availability of evidence for conservation into 12-25% more areas and 5-32% more species (Amano et al. 2021. PLOS Biology)
  • Non-English-language studies tend to be based on less robust study designs, compared to English-language studies (Amano et al. 2021. PLOS Biology)
  • Ten practical tips for overcoming language barriers in science (Amano et al. 2021. Nature Human Behaviour)
  • Only 3.4% of the references cited in the IPBES biodiversity assessments were non-English-language studies (Lynch et al. 2021. One Earth)
  • Comments from Anglophone reviewers were overrepresented in the IPBES biodiversity assessments (Lynch et al. 2021. One Earth)
  • Why monolingual literature searches can limit and bias results in global literature reviews (Nuñez & Amano 2021. Nature Ecology & Evolution)
  • Ignoring studies published in languages other than English can bias outcomes of ecological meta-analyses (Konno et al. 2020. Ecology and Evolution)
  • Up to 36% of conservation-related scientific documents are published in non-English languages (Amano et al. 2016. PLOS Biology)
  • Fewer records are stored in global biodiversity databases for countries where English is not widely spoken (Amano & Sutherland 2013. Proc R Soc B).
  • 54% of protected area directors in Spain found language as a barrier to the use of scientific papers for their management (Amano et al. 2016. PLOS Biology)

For more detail see Publications and the latest presentation on findings from the project below (plenary at the 2022 Joint Conference of the Ecological Society of Australia and the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania: from 48:48):