Abstract

Abstract is a new series featuring the work of ANU students and academics. If you’d like the ANU community to read about your research, thesis or other project – either as an individual or as a group – contact science@woroni.com.au. Write a 600-700 word summary (or ‘abstract’) of what your project involves, why it will change the world (even slightly) and what’s next for you.

This debut edition of Abstract, written by Adam Huttner-Koros, features his research with Dr Sean Perera on ESL scientists working with the English language.

The field of scientific inquiry is now a global endeavor. There are scientists from every country in the world working on the same premise of unbiased rational thought and evidence-based reasoning. Science strives to be inclusive, to accept anyone as long as they can think logically and fairly.

This might not be quite what happens in reality, though. Most people know that science around the world is primarily done in English. Many studies have shown that papers published in English are far more likely to be read and cited than those in other languages, and the biggest discoveries invariably have to be published in English before they can be shared and accepted by the scientific community.

Yet worldwide, there are more scientists who are non-native speakers of English than there are who are native speakers of English. Think about it: there are scientists in China, in Mexico, in Senegal, in Russia, in Egypt and in every country you can name. But all of them, no matter what their native language, need to publish in English. This means that scientists who don’t speak English as a native language have to learn English in order to succeed as scientists, despite being in the majority.

Research that I conducted last year with Dr. Sean Perera through the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science looked at scientists from the CSIRO who are non-native speakers of English. We asked them, through a survey and an interview, about the challenges they face in that particular position. I also interviewed communication support staff from the CSIRO, to ask about how the scientists are required to publish and communicate their work and about the support that non-native English-speaking scientists receive from the organisation, in the form of small courses targeted at improving speaking and writing skills.

These sets of interviews, combined with an extensive literature review gave me a good understanding of the issues the scientists from non-native English speaking backgrounds at the CSIRO are facing in their day-to-day work.

The reason that this research is so important is that the experiences of scientists from non-native English speaking backgrounds are often overlooked in the way we perceive the field of science. Research about the multilingual and multicultural nature of science is important because it shows us the diversity and the struggles that are sometimes hidden from us. We might not often consider the impact of a homogenous English-only discipline, but it does have consequences for the scientists working in it.

Remember, the majority of scientists worldwide are in this category; so understanding their experience is a step towards greater inclusivity and diversity. If scientific organisations can be more aware of what their scientists are facing when going about their work, perhaps they can provide additional support to make the science, rather than the language, the focus of the scientists’ time and effort.

It is somewhat ironic that research about the impact of the English language’s domination of science will (hopefully) be published in an English-language scientific journal, but that’s how things go. The advantage of being a native English speaker is significant when working in science.

I looked at scientists who were non-native speakers of English working in an English language setting. I’m interested now in whether the same distinctions might apply for scientists who are true bilinguals of English and another language, working in a bilingual setting. The situation is a bit different, but the pressure of English is the same. For example, how do things work in Quebec, where scientists work daily in both French and English, or perhaps in some parts of India or Sri Lanka, where scientists speak a combination of Hindi, Tamil or another language and English.

Science Sub-Editor’s note: Adam cannot mention his partnership’s results yet because their paper is in the pre-publication review process.