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The dominant language of science

The dominant language of science

iStock.com / Luoman

“It is ironic that, in order to make French science known to the scientific community, French-speaking researchers see the need to publish in English. This may seem unworthy, but the facts confirm this observation.” These words were uttered more than 40 years ago, in 1977, by Peter K. Aborn, then vice-president of the Institute for Scientific Information, at an international conference on the future of French in scientific and technical communication. What Aborn said was true at the time, and it is perhaps even truer today for many francophone academics.

The facts are eye-opening. According to information gathered by the Canada Research Chair in the Transformations of Scholarly Communication, only 0.5 per cent of Quebec researchers’ articles in international journals in 2014 were in French in the field of natural and medical sciences, and just 9.4 per cent in the social sciences and humanities. This data points to a 14.3 per cent decrease since 1980 for papers written in French in the natural and medical sciences, and a 25.6 per cent drop for the social sciences and humanities.

“In the natural and medical sciences field, the debate is a foregone conclusion. If we don’t publish in English, we’re not even on the map as researchers,” explains chairholder Vincent Lari­vière, who is also an associate professor of information science at Université de Montréal.

Larivière is exploring how and why this wave of anglicization is sweeping through the social sciences and humanities, by analyzing a vast corpus of articles indexed in Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science database of more than 3,500 specialized journals.

“University rankings only take into account the number of articles published in the most prestigious journals, and these are all in English. That’s one of the main reasons why our universities are pushing us to publish in English. What that means for francophone researchers, is that we have to learn how to write academic papers in a language that isn’t our native tongue,” Larivière points out. He notes that researchers in France and China face similar challenges. However, given their critical mass, it remains possible for scientists in these two non-English-speaking countries to pursue a university career in their own language — unlike francophones in Canada.

Physicist Pierre Demers, who died in January 2017 at the age of 102, fought throughout his career for the recognition of research in French. In an interview with Le Devoir in 2015, Demers spoke out strongly against what he called Québécois researchers’ lack of interest in their language, urging them to make an effort to turn the situation around. “The French-language resources available to us are not being used when we articulate and reflect on scientific problems in another language,” Demers claimed.

The challenges facing francophone academics are an ongoing concern for CAUT. The association’s Francophones’ Committee — a committee of the executive — has contributed to the improvement of working conditions for francophone academics by organizing national conferences and advising on the adoption of policies that recognize the increased workload of francophones in minority communities, and the value of disseminating research in French.

“The focus on rankings and metrics means that many post-secondary institutions give less weight to scholarly publications in French when making decisions about hiring, tenure and promotion,” says CAUT executive director David Robinson. “A publication should not be regarded as less significant solely on the basis of the language in which it is written.” CAUT also recognizes the heavier workload that faces francophone academics working at anglophone universities. Franco­phone academics are often called upon to take on extra tasks, such as managing translation requests and arranging for interpretation, communications and representation. CAUT’s policies recommend that post-secondary institutions recognize the additional workload this represents for some members of their staff.

“These policies are very important at a time when biblio­metrics are exacerbating an already significant problem,” says Blanca Navarro Pardiñas, who chairs the francophones’ committee. “It’s difficult for researchers to make progress at the same pace if they only publish in French, so they are faced with a tough choice. We have to keep fighting to make sure French is valued as a language of scientific knowledge.”

Suzanne Huot would love nothing more than to publish in French and to work more in her native language, but agrees there are obstacles in her way. In her position as assistant professor of occupational science and occupational therapy in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia, her research centres on the experiences of French-speaking immigrants and refugees in francophone minority communities.

“It takes more effort to publish research conducted in French, because research findings often have to be presented in English — either because national academic associations don’t have any workshops in French at their annual conferences, or because tenure expectations pressure us to submit our articles to the academic journals with the greatest impact factors,” she explains. “Publishing in English is key to career development, regardless of the fact that the target audience most likely to benefit from our research is predominantly French-speaking.”

As well as being strongly encouraged to publish in English, Huot has to deal with the complex challenges of working in English surrounded by a majority of colleagues who only speak English. She struggles to establish a research team, find mentors and recruit graduate students to assist in her work. “Because universities’ internal systems are all in English, this complicates the ethics process, for instance. All of the information sheets, consent forms and research tools we prepare for use in French with participants have to be translated for internal evaluation, which adds up to a lot of extra time and effort before we even begin our research.”

Navarro Pardiñas hopes that CAUT’s third francophones’ conference, taking place in Ottawa later this month, will help identify some ways to address the issues facing francophone academics. “We want to know how francophones have been impacted by austerity measures,” she points out. “We’re going to be asking a lot of questions. For instance, what impacts have austerity measures had on courses offered in French? What’s more, following the various funding cuts in universities and granting agencies, where do francophone researchers fit into the research community picture here in Canada?”

This last question is one of particular concern for Vincent Larivière. Throughout his research, he’s observed not only a creeping dominance of English, but also a gradual shift toward research topics that fail to reflect the Canadian and Québécois reality. “It’s clear that there have been impacts on work undertaken,” he says. “We’re pressured to publish in the big so-called international journals, which are actually nation-centric, and more specifically, British or American. If I wanted to get published in the American Journal of Sociology, for example, my chances of piquing the journal’s interest would be slim if my article was all about Quebec society. Similarly, if I wanted to publish an article in the American Journal of Economics, I’d stand a better chance if I wrote about the Federal Reserve than if the object of my study were the Bank of Canada. Our country’s linguistic duality is very one-sided. English is the global language we use to converse with our German and Dutch colleagues, as well as our peers south of the border, so it naturally holds a greater power of attraction.”

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