Graph: Web of Science citations by language, data from Bordon ans Gomez 2004

English dominance in academia

On a recent quick trip to a smallish European country (Czechia), I was reminded of the dominance of English in broad reaches of academic life.

We Anglophones have the privilege of being able to travel almost anywhere and enjoy rich discussions in our native tongue. This also means that English idioms and conceptual schemas are hugely influential, while specialized vocabulary can lag in other languages. And most of the world’s people face an additional burden when they try to use research: it’s mostly in English. As a Quebecois scholar writes (Lord 2023):

«Cette internationalisation de l’enseignement présente également quelques défis, importants notamment celui de préserver une culture nationale en recherche et un accès à la recherche scientifique dans les communautés locales.» (“This internationalization of education also presents some important challenges, notably preserving a national research culture and access to scientific research in local communities.”)

In many countries, citation counts are used to assess individual scholars and whole universities. That method is always problematic, but an additional problem in most of the world is that papers published in English–and in English-language journals–almost always have higher counts. In fact, controlling for other factors, English is statistically related to the number of times an article is cited (Di Bitetti & Ferreras 2017).

Two Spanish scholars (writing, not surprisingly, in English) calculate the trends captured by the Web of Science from 1980 to 2000. I present their data in the graph with this post. Overall, English represented 84.5% of all articles in 1980, rising very smoothly to 95.9% in 2000. Spanish–which has more than half a billion native speakers–is invisible on my graph, with 0.3% of all articles in 2000. (Bordons & Gomez 2004). The authors don’t calculate Chinese or Hindi.

In countries whose languages were never widely spoken, university life was always conducted in one or more foreign languages. Latin yielded to French or German, before shifting to English after WWII. But even languages that have hundreds of millions of speakers and/or international prestige seem endangered today in academia. Bordons and Gomez calculate that 59% of articles by French authors, and 62% by German authors, were written in English in 1980, rising to 89% and 90% (respectively) by 2000. I haven’t found more recent statistics, but that trend would lead to an English monopoly if it continued.

These data come from Web of Science. Although that database includes humanities, social sciences, and law, it tilts to the STEM fields, as do all citation counts. My own humanities and social science articles from the last few years are sole-authored publications that required many weeks of my work, and they will not receive any citations for quite a while. Being cited requires another scholar to read the piece, write an article that cites it, and then navigate a publication process that can take years. In contrast, I was part of two public health publications in 2022, along with co-authors. Each required hours of work from me. Just months after appearing, they already have 19 published citations between them. STEM simply involves a much higher volume and faster pace, basically swamping the humanities in numerical terms.

I mention this point about STEM because any data about publications will likely underestimate the humanities, where the written languages are probably more diverse. I find that when I want to know about specific works of art or literature, Google Scholar will often yield results in languages other than English. Nevertheless, English is dominant in academia as a whole, and its share appears to be growing.

References: Lord, F. R. (2023). La communauté universitaire sous tensions: analyse des dynamiques de communication et de gestion entourant la création d’une université (Doctoral dissertation, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières); Di Bitetti, M. S., & Ferreras, J. A. (2017). Publish (in English) or perish: The effect on citation rate of using languages other than English in scientific publications. Ambio, 46, 121-127; Bordons M and Gomez I. 2004. Towards a single language in science? A Spanish view. Serials 17: 189–195

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.