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Bridging language barriers could improve efforts to protect Earth's biodiversity

Bridging language barriers could improve efforts to protect Earth's biodiversity
Researchers identified several endangered species, including the Blakiston's fish owl, for which little to no English-language conservation science exists. Photo by Julie Edgley/Wikimedia Commons

Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Earth's biodiversity faces myriad challenges -- pollution, deforestation, invasive species -- but a language barrier isn't one of them. The same can't be said for the scientists and policy makers tasked with cataloguing and protecting the planet's ecological riches.

Like the logging roads that hem in chimpanzee or elephant populations and prevent migration and reproduction, language barriers curb the dissemination of vital scientific information.

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When scientists don't take steps to account for non-English language research, they're ignoring a wealth of information on many of the planet's rarest and most endangered species, researchers say.

"English is not necessarily widely spoken in regions where biodiversity is the richest and threatened the most, and so conservation is needed the most, such as Latin America," Tatsuya Amano, conservation biologist and research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia, told UPI in an email.

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Amano, who has spent the last several years investigating language barriers in science, is the lead author of a survey of non-English conservation research published Thursday in PLOS Biology.

"Much scientific knowledge on conservation is produced by local practitioners, who often find it a real challenge to publish their work in English, and so decide to publish it instead in their first language," Amano said.

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Increasingly, efforts to document the world's biodiversity, both discovered and undiscovered, have relied on meta-analysis -- the amalgamation and examination of previously published research and biodiversity databases.

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As Amano's previous studies have shown, these efforts often ignore non-English publications, and when they do, knowledge gaps manifest.

"These knowledge gaps might bias the results and affect the research's conclusion and robustness," Mario Moura, professor at Federal University of Paraiba in Brazil, told UPI in an email.

Moura, who was not involved in the new research, published a paper earlier this year on his effort to map Earth's undiscovered biodiversity.

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The places in which scientists are likely to find new -- and vulnerable -- species are the same places where English is less common -- places like the Andes and Borneo.

"In my view, biodiversity knowledge is scattered across too many small pieces of information available in very different languages," Moura said. "While publishing in English helps bridge researchers worldwide, it does not assure that past non-English research will be found and used in the future."

Hindering existing efforts

Ignoring non-English research doesn't just impede efforts to find and document biodiversity. It also, as Amano's latest research shows, hinders efforts to protect endangered species and imperiled ecosystems.

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For his latest study, Amano and his research partners set out to document the quantity and quality of conservation research being published in non-English languages.

To do so, researchers first recruited the assistance of 62 multi- and bilingual collaborators from all over the world. Collectively, the research team spoke 17 languages.

Next, Amano and his collaborators surveyed 400,000 peer-reviewed papers in 326 journals published in 16 languages, identifying 1,234 studies offering scientific knowledge on species and ecosystem protections.

The analysis showed that efforts to incorporate non-English conservation research into future surveys could extend the geographic scope of conservation science by 12% to 25%, as well as incorporate knowledge for 5% to 32% more species.

Researchers identified several endangered species for which little to no English-language conservation science exists.

"In the paper, we mentioned two endangered species, Andean mountain cats, Leopardus jacobita, and Blakiston's fish owls, Bubo blakistoni, for which scientific studies on the effectiveness of conservation actions are available only in non-English languages, Spanish and Japanese, respectively," Amano said.

With more knowledge, policy makers can make better decisions about how to save vulnerable species and where to funnel conservation resources.

More collaboration may improve efforts

More than just revealing the wealth of non-English conservation science available for analysis, Amano's paper can serve as a test case for tackling language barriers in conservation science.

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It all starts with collaboration, as evidenced by the diversity of co-authors after Amano's name at the top of his newly published paper.

"Research groups and collaborations need to include more researchers who are fluent or able to read and write in non-English languages," co-author Alec Christie, conservation scientist and research fellow at the University of Cambridge, told UPI in an email.

"There needs to be greater thought put into how data are collected and what sample of the total scientific literature, English and non-English, they are actually analyzing, rather than assuming the English literature contains the totality of scientific research," Christie said.

In addition to nurturing diverse scientific communities and encouraging international collaboration, Amano said he supports efforts to expand access to English language learning.

The elevation of English as the de facto language of science comes with significant inequities, but Amano agrees that it is essential to have a common language of science.

Scott Montgomery, who writes extensively on science communication and who has been critical of Amano's work, said he recognizes the importance of non-English languages for scientific discovery.

"I very much agree with Dr. Amano on the point about biodiversity -- this is very often an issue with decidedly local aspects," Montgomery told UPI in an email. "Public awareness -- thus, in the local-national language -- and national decision-making tend to be key in much species protection and preservation."

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"I would add, however, that the issue of biodiversity also has a global context, a very pressing one," he said. "New knowledge related to this very much needs to be shared internationally, with the global collegiate of researchers. For this, translation into English would be the most effective approach."

English translations are worth having

Both Amano and Montgomery stress the importance of translation, preferably by human translators, not machines, but translation is time-consuming and expensive.

And so is English education.

"Many global challenges, such as the biodiversity crisis, climate change and the pandemic, are urgent issues," Amano said. "We desperately need solutions today. For those challenges, we can't afford waiting for 6 billion people who don't speak English to become proficient in English."

By collaborating with local researchers in areas of rich, but vulnerable, biodiversity, researchers can ensure much of the necessary translation work happens throughout the scientific process.

In addition to filling knowledge gaps, collaborative efforts can help ensure that important scientific data simply is not extracted, but shared -- and shared in many languages.

Many, if not most, of the decision-makers living and working in biodiversity hotspots are not fluent in English.

If the goal of conservation science is to inform and influence local policy, researchers say it's vital that important conservation science flows not just up, but also back down to those on the ground, whether they are politicians, farmers, biologists or wildlife managers.

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"I'd also say that we have to ensure that summaries of the literature and syntheses are translated into as many languages as possible," Christie said. "So combining and synthesizing evidence from multiple languages is key, but also disseminating that evidence in multiple languages is key, too."

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