Piecing it together: Language and academia

English is the prevailing language of science and academia. In many ways this is advantageous, but lack of diversity can be problematic when trying to share findings and ideas.

Illustration by Heidi Wong

Illustration by Heidi Wong

As English is currently spoken by more people than any other language in the world, it is often said that it is the language of the modern era. English is also evidently the dominant language of academia, despite other languages, such as Spanish, Hindi and Mandarin, having higher numbers of native speakers. It seems sensible on some level — after all, if you want to get your work read by people around the world, it’s important to share it in the language that the highest number of people can read. But is the style of English that is currently used to write about research and academia accessible to as many people as we would assume? A number of unexpected barriers stand between writing in a universal language and writing in a style that can genuinely be accessed by the majority of people.

English dominates

English is the dominant language in which academic journals are published, but this wasn’t always the case. An analysis by Philip G Altbach found that until the mid-1900s most universities taught in their country’s national language, as well as using it for science and scholarship. Yet by the start of this millennium almost all of the articles published in the world’s top journals were written in English (95% of articles in the Science Citation Index by 1997). 

The halls of academia are lined with English texts.   Stewart Butterfield/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

The halls of academia are lined with English texts. Stewart Butterfield/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Universities from English speaking countries also tend to dominate when it comes to world rankings. In the Times Higher Education world rankings in 2016 only one university in the top 25 was not from an English speaking country; this was ETH Zurich, which teaches in German for Bachelor’s degrees but uses English as its principal language of instruction for Master’s degrees. Out of the top 100 ranked universities, around two thirds were from English speaking countries. 

Identifying access issues

In many fields of academia journal papers are written by and for academics, so using the dominant language isn’t much of an issue. But there are some disciplines where the major impact of research occurs outside of academia. For instance, for research to have an impact in the international development and humanitarian fields, it has to be easily accessible to development practitioners and researchers working with disadvantaged communities that may be experiencing poverty or disaster. 

Access to journals can often be restrictive to an academic or practitioner working for NGOs, local organisations or less affluent universities who may not have high levels of English comprehension and who are often working in the very countries that the research is supposed to help. Dani Barrington, who has worked as both a researcher and development practitioner, knows all about the relationship between work in the lab and in the field. “As a practitioner, I needed access to the latest research, and as a researcher, I need practitioners to keep me grounded to community needs and aspirations.”

Humanitarian practitioners working in the field need easy access to research.   hdptcar/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Humanitarian practitioners working in the field need easy access to research. hdptcar/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Using plain language

Besides financial difficulties, there are other barriers to access for the people that most need research findings. One of the key problems is the language and style of research papers. Not only is the dominant language English, but journal papers are written in academicese — a complex style of writing that allows only those who are very familiar with the subject to follow the progression of a paper. 

The plain language movement started as a human rights issue in the law and health fields, advocating to make information that is important to people’s lives accessible to lay people. The success of the plain language movement is clearly evidenced in the legal industry, where there is now a prerequisite level of accessibility required for any communication about any and all ideas. In most English speaking countries, documents must be “clear and reader-friendly” as well as accurate, certain and precise. The justification for clarity in research findings is compelling, and it seems inevitable that these issues will need to be addressed in academia on a more holistic level.

In an attempt to overcome this barrier in the scientific field, peer reviewed journals like the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering are taking steps to address this issue. The journal was created to share the best research on the applications of technology in order to support communities living in poverty or facing disadvantage. Julian O’Shea, the creator and founding editor, wanted the journal to push the boundaries of accessibility for people from all backgrounds. The Open Journal Project was created to translate journal articles into plain language guides: a two or three page version of the longer manuscript that is simple to read and free of academic jargon. O’Shea compares the plain language guides to the Simple English pages on Wikipedia for people who may have relatively low levels of English comprehension. 

Translating research

The next step towards removing barriers to research is to translate it into the language in which it’s most useful. For example, the Open Journal Project translated a paper relating to rainwater harvesting techniques in Cambodia into Khmer, the national language of Cambodia. In the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering, both readers and authors can request articles to be translated into another language, making research accessible to the people that need it the most.

Accessibility for people with disability is also an important factor. For the first volume of the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering many of the articles were hard printed in braille; modern text-to-speech applications used with the plain language articles can also perform this function. 

Making research more accessible includes printing it as braille.   Ralph Aichinger/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Making research more accessible includes printing it as braille. Ralph Aichinger/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Making it free and easy

Another progressive element implemented by the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering was to remove the financial barrier for people in low-income communities. O’Shea said that “locking this information behind paywalls and publishing inside subscription-only journals wouldn't help the communities that this research was undertaken to serve — so the journal was set up as a truly open access publication.” The principle is that the knowledge within it can be accessed by anyone and everyone who is interested, with no exceptions. 

Of course having an article in a language you can read is just the first step; getting access to the material in the first place can also be a problem. The Open Journal Project has articles in both PDF and also low bandwidth HTML formats, meaning there are no big files to download. They also experimented with hosting these files on torrents so that if the webpage was blocked by a government or administration for any reason, practitioners might still be able to get hold of useful knowledge. This work earned the Open Journal Project an Australian Access Support Group Award for innovation as an Open Access Champion. 

Implementing change

Of course, responsibility for change is never single-handed. Cultural shifts of this nature can only be possible with the consent and participation of all parties. While academic journals can lay the ground for this kind of movement, universities can promote training for plain language communication throughout degrees and study programs. Companies like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offer online training modules in writing with plain language for researchers and science writers. Writers can also purchase editing software like StyleWriter, which is designed by professional editors and experts in plain language to teach you the fundamentals of plain language writing. Funding bodies can also implement requirements for plain language versions of research, in full or summary form, as a part of their funding application criteria. 

Training in plain language writing can be offered as part of a university course or by outside organisations.   Yiu KM/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Training in plain language writing can be offered as part of a university course or by outside organisations. Yiu KM/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is an underlying driver of much of academia: the concept of publish or perish. This cycle causes a myriad of issues, where the academic’s career progression is based on having journal manuscripts published in order to gain funding for further research, which must then be published to gain further funding, ad nauseam. The major problem with this is that in some cases, the real-world impact of the research is not carefully considered. Thankfully, advances like the ones described show that making research accessible is becoming a priority. 

Edited by Deborah Kane, and supported by Bren Carruthers