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The francophone researcher’s dilemma: publish in English or perish?

French-speaking researchers are increasingly choosing to publish their scientific articles in English.

By JEAN-FRANÇOIS VENNE | NOV 29 2017

French-speaking researchers are increasingly publishing their scientific articles in English, but opinions differ in Quebec on whether this is the right choice, and how it impacts local research and society.

 “For research to play its full role in improving the society in which it is conducted, researchers must be able to communicate it in the local language,” said Frédéric Bouchard, dean of the faculty of arts at Université de Montréal and president of the Association francophone pour le savoir (Canada’s French-language association for the advancement of science). “It is important for all societies to have a research community that is capable of expressing itself in its own language.”

Yet, for more than 30 years, researchers have increasingly been publishing in English – and not just in Quebec. “In the so-called ‘hard’ sciences, such as the natural sciences, it long ago became a given that researchers publish in English and that it’s not a big deal,” said Yves Gingras, a science historian at Université du Québec à Montréal. “After all, electrons are the same everywhere. But the rise in humanities and social sciences publications in English seems less advisable and more worrisome.”

A question of impact

In 2016, U de Montréal researchers Vincent Larivière and Nadine Desrochers published some startling data on English-language humanities publications in Quebec, France and Germany from the Web of Science database. Between 1980 and 2014, the proportion of English-language articles in the humanities jumped from 30 percent to 80 percent in both France and Germany. In other words, the share of papers written in their local languages dropped from 70 percent to less than 20 per cent. In Quebec, 70 percent of articles were already being written in English in 1980. That proportion now exceeds 90 percent.

What’s behind the trend? It can largely be attributed to quantitative research assessment methods based on the number, and particularly the reach (as in the number of citations), of publications. The two researchers from U de Montréal noticed that humanities papers published in English were cited an average of three times as often than papers written in French in the three areas studied. Political science professors Louis Imbeau and Mathieu Ouimet of Université Laval made a similar observation in 2012 regarding political science research in Quebec. Their data showed that researchers who write mainly in French are both published and cited less frequently.

“You have to get with the times,” said Dr. Imbeau. “The same thing is happening in every country around the world. If you don’t publish in English, you lose the bulk of your potential readership. Your performance metrics are weaker, and that can be damaging to a researcher’s career.”

On the other hand, Dr. Gingras of UQAM said he finds this trend of anglicizing humanities and social sciences research to be insidious. “Subjects of study in these fields are often of national, if not local, interest,” he said. “To be able to publish in a major English-language journal, say from the United States, researchers will choose more theoretical or more universal topics, to the detriment of subjects that are of vital significance to the local community. That creates tension between the best interests of the research and those of the researcher’s career.”

A different way to build recognition

Well aware of the importance of language in humanities and social sciences research, Louise Poissant, scientific director of the provincial granting council Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture, noted that the council “requires that the scientific journals it supports financially consist of at least 50 percent French-language content.” As a result of political representation, the number of French-language scientific journals supported by the FRQSC has increased from 28 to 36 since 2015.

FRQSC grants can also be used to translate scientific texts into English to reach a wider audience. However, French-language texts can be showcased in other ways, such as through the Érudit platform. Created in 1998, Érudit digitally disseminates more than 170 French-language scientific and cultural journals. In 2017, it provided access to more than 200,000 documents in 35 scientific disciplines which are consulted annually in every country around the world. Francophone researchers use it, as do a large number of researchers for whom French is a second or third language.

Technology, therefore, already plays an important role in the dissemination of research published in French. That said, new innovations could reverse the English-only trend. The advent of more effective automated translation tools will enable researchers to publish in their own language, but be read by their entire research community. “The hegemony of English as the language of scientific communication may be short-lived,” said Dr. Bouchard of Acfas. “There is no longer any need to over-anglicize, especially with the emergence of technology tools that foster linguistic and cultural diversity.”

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  1. Anonymous / December 2, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    While this is an interesting article, the headline is somewhat misleading. The choice to publish in English is a choice faced by many non-English speakers, not simply Francophones or Germans. The reality is that more than half of all natural science journals (certainly among the most influential international publications) are published in English. English has been the lingua franca for scientific publication for quite some time.

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