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.

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.

Credit: Toby Smith / Cambridge Conservation Initiative

Key findings

So far we have shown that:

  • 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)

See Publications for more detail.