Non-English Languages Enrich Scientitic Knowledge

Danish Ali Ahmed is Assistant Professor at the Mathematics and Natural Sciences department at GUST, and coauthored the scientific paper: Angulo E, Diagne C, Ballesteros-Mejia L, Adamjy T, Ahmed DA, Akulov E, Banerjee AK, Capinha C, Dia CAKM, Dobigny G, Duboscq-Carra VG, Golivets M, Haubrock PJ, Heringer G, Kirichenko N, Kourantidou M, Liu C, Nuñez MA, Renault D, Roiz D, Taheri A, Verbrugge L, Watari Y, Xiong W, Courchamp F. (2021) Non-English languages enrich scientific knowledge: the example of economic costs of biological invasions. Science of the Total Environment 775:144441.

Does Science only speak English? English is the language that dominates scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals in all research fields. However, in recent years there has been an increasing recognition of the importance of non-English literature for filling knowledge gaps, expanding the scientific knowledge base and successfully complete global pictures in multiple facets of science. Despite its importance, non-English literature remains largely underutilized by most researchers due to the language barrier that impedes understanding of the published materials, in addition to the lower accessibility to these sources.

Biological invasions are at the interface between the anthroposphere (invasions are driven and managed by humans) and the biosphere, all environments in which organisms live, from viruses and pathogens to animals and plants. Moreover, biological invasions impact ecosystems and ecosystem services in marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments causing economic damages and economic investments in its management. InvaCost is the most up to date database reporting economic costs of biological invasions worldwide; however, the database suffers from this gap, causing biases at the geographical scale, taxonomic representation of invasive species, or in the cost types.

International travel and trade have led to the introduction of many non-native species into new ecosystems, some of which establish, spread, and have severe negative impacts on ecosystems and economies. However, economic impacts of these growing invasions have lacked quantification. Furthermore, scientific studies on biological invasions are primarily communicated in the English language. To what extent does this lead to knowledge gaps? Dr. Elena Angulo and Prof. Franck Courchamp from the University of Paris Saclay (France), led a group of scientists from 18 different countries, including Dr. Danish Ali Ahmed from the Gulf University of Science and Technology, GUST (Kuwait) to investigate this further. They reported that including costs of invasive species sourced from scientific articles written in 10 different languages other than English, leads to a four-fold increase in cost data amounting to an additional $200 billion.

In a recently published article in the journal ‘Science of the Total Environment’ (ranked at Q1 with impact factor 7.963 ranking it 25 out of 274 in Environmental Sciences), this international team of researchers demonstrated that using non-English sources adds significantly more data and found an additional 240 new invasive species, spanning across 15 more countries, with an increase in estimates of global costs by 16%. This highlights that relying only on information from English sources can lead to both knowledge gaps and biases in global syntheses and therefore prompts the question: What language does science speak?

The authors stress the adverse effect of neglecting non-English languages, which are often easily available and rich in primary data. Moreover, data were found in many languages, from French to Spanish and Portuguese, to German, Dutch and Greek, but also Russian, Arabic, Chinese or Japanese. In addition to science without linguistic barriers, the authors have shown the importance of improving multi-language communication between all actors working with invasive alien species, whether it be scientists, practitioners, or policy makers.

Prof. Frank Courchamp commented: “When we started this study, we were hoping to add a few percent data to our database from non-English sources, at most 10%. To increase it by 300% was a real surprise: even we were amazed by the wealth of scientific data available in languages other than the one traditionally used to convey science, English.” Dr. Danish Ali Ahmed commented: ‘‘For some time now, researchers have been talking about how to minimise or remove language barriers as a means of more effective communication within the same or even across scientific disciplines – and this timely study highlights the importance of this. The example given was based on biological invasions, but we wonder how much scientific information is lost in other subject areas, and how detrimental this may have been.’’ Dr. Elena Angulo, lead author of the study concludes: “Reliable global information therefore requires multi-language and multi-stakeholder information. Regarding our work, this is the basis for a better understanding of the cost of invasive alien species, essential to properly inform management plans of biological invasions at the global level.”

The study was funded by many organizations including the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) (Grant number: PR1914SM-01) and the Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) internal seed fund (Grant Number: 187092)