Research language / Forskningsspråk

As a researcher with one foot in humanities and another in natural sciences, I’ve noticed a real difference in the language used for publishing research.

In the Department of Ecology & Environmental Science, all scientific research publications are in English. This is obvious if you take a look at the recent publications listed in the Umeå University publications database for the department. In 2012-2013, there were 10 PhD dissertations completed in the department and all of them are collections of English language articles.

In the history group in the Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Swedish is a much more common language used to publish research according to the database. In 2012-2013, there were 7 PhD dissertations completed in the department and, of those, there was 1 English-language monograph, 1 article collection with 2 English articles, and 5 all-Swedish dissertations.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge the value of publishing in Swedish. I think it is particularly appropriate for popular science publication and public outreach – after all, the target audience for those works is people who speak Swedish. And I recognize that from a language preservation and development standpoint, some people believe that it is important to keep scientific language alive in the vernacular.

However, I think it is a real shame to publish research results intended for a research audience in Swedish. Let me explain why. If a researcher publishes results in Swedish, the audience is radically limit to only those people who know one of the Nordic languages. Keeping in mind that there are 9.6 million people in Sweden, 5 million in Norway, and 5.6 million in Denmark (and many of those are either children or don’t know a Nordic language), a publication in Swedish has a much smaller potential audience than one in English which includes native speakers as well as all of the international research community. This point was made well by Henrik Daae Zachrisson, who was a PhD student in 2005 when he entered a newspaper debate about the use of Norwegian versus English as a research language:

Språklige barrièrer vil hindre utveksling av kunnskap over landegrenser.… Skal forskere og beslutningstagere i resten av verden miste muligheten til å nyttiggjøre seg norsk forskning?… Til det er fagmiljøene for små.

Language barriers prevent the exchange of knowledge across borders. Should scientists and decision-makers around the world lose the opportunity to benefit from Norwegian research? In addition, the research community is too small. (My translation)

I’ve seen the affect of publishing in Nordic languages in my own research. For my PhD project, I worked on the sanitary systems in place in late medieval towns of England and Scandinavia, i.e. Northern Europe. What I found out was that a fair amount of research had been done in Norway, Sweden and Denmark from archeologists and historians, but almost none of it had appeared in English. Whenever historians writing in English-language journals or books mentioned medieval sanitary conditions, they used only works published in English or French. The Scandinavian results were completely invisible to them. I incorporated the Scandinavian language findings into my English-language publications to make new arguments that might not have been as solid without them.

Now, one could simply blame those other researchers for not knowing a Scandinavian language. But let’s be honest, why would they do so unless it was their specialty area? After all, we as researchers can’t be responsible for learning every language out there. Instead, we can all come together to communicate with a common language. And at the moment, that is English.

I think one reason many Swedish historians publish in Swedish is that they think only Swedes are interested in the results. They tell place-based stories that they frame with only consequences for that specific place. This is where I think they are wrong. I think local stories should only be told as histories if there are some larger lessons to be drawn from them. The world is not a set of isolated places, but rather a series of connections. Our job as historians is to explain how understanding one small history should change in some way, however slight, the way we understand the world.

That’s the approach that the natural scientists have taken. They too have place-based stories. They collect samples from specific places in Sweden, tributaries of the Vindel River or the tundra of Abisko, but instead of making an argument only to other researchers studying Fenno-Scandinavia, they frame their results as having some kind of broader meaning. And I think it is a better tactic in the long run because it:
– Makes Swedish research accessible globally.

– Forces Swedish researchers to put their research into global perspectives.

The ultimate question we must ask ourselves as researchers is: Who is it for? The answer to that question should determine the research language we use in publication.

This Forskarbloggen is an excellent place to begin asking that question. Of the researchers who have blogged here, 10 have used Swedish and 4 (including me) have used English. Stina Jansson recognized the use of Swedish as a potential problem for the blog in her last post of 2012 in which she mused about departmental internationalization. A link to Forskarbloggen is featured on the main university homepage when in Swedish, but not when in English. So who is it for? Is it really an outreach tool intended to reach only those in Sweden or perhaps the Nordic countries, or is it a global tool?

1 svara
  1. David Meyers says:

    Thank you for writing such a strong argument for publishing more research articles in English. I certainly hope the university management, faculty deans and heads of department react positively to your call.

    As the web editor for the English page, I certainly agree with your that Forskarbloggen should be equally profiled on the English website and will update our homepage today. I truly regret the oversight. Furthermore, I hope other researchers follow for your lead and blog in English to ”reach the wider audience.”

    The question I have is whether Umeå University truly has the will to become one of the elite teaching and research universities in the world. If yes, then we need to foster an environment in which English is used as a medium of communication on a more frequent basis. Especially among the over 500 employees at university administration.


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