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Science Tribune - Article - April 1997


International scientific English: Some thoughts on science, language and ownership

Alistair Wood

Dept. of English Language and Applied Linguistics, University of Brunei Darussalam, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam 2028
E-mail : awood@begawan.ubd.edu.bn

The intention of this paper is to raise some questions about the `ownership' of scientific English. Its author is a native speaker of English and a teacher of scientific English, but it aims its arguments at the international scientific community communicating in English. The paper is deliberately somewhat provocative in parts in an attempt to raise some questions about `scientific English' which I think are important but which have not been faced to date.

The dominant position of English in scientific publishing

Whatever method we may use to measure the growth in science, whether it be number of journals, number of articles, number of patents, it is clear that the trend is still inexorably upwards. And increasingly the language of publication is English. The position of say, German, earlier this century in a discipline like chemistry is no longer what it was. The same trend is evident in French and since the demise of the Soviet Union also in Russian. The former Soviet-bloc countries in which Russian used to be the first foreign language now see its place taken by English. In Hungary, for example, where students now have a free choice of foreign language, English is now clearly in first place, followed by German, then French. A massive programme of retraining Russian teachers to teach English has meant that most of the younger generation are now learning English.

The position of English in some fields of science is even more stark. The vast majority of articles in computer science, for example, are published in English. The major journals in practically all disciplines are in English, from the general scientific journals like Nature and Science to the New England Journal of Medicine or Cell, to more specialist journals like Oncogene or Lupus or ... name half-a-dozen in whatever field you are working in. Even many journals of smaller nations' scientific societies, like those of Slovenia for example, publish also in English. When abstracted more widely these are then accessible to a world audience. For a scientist to publish in a language other than English therefore is increasingly to cut herself off from the worldwide community of scientists who publish in English. The work may then be ignored simply because it is published in a language unknown to the rest of the world.

If a scientist feels it necessary, therefore, to publish in English in order to reach this worldwide audience, does this mean that the scientist whose native language is not English is at a disadvantage in attempting to get her work published and accepted ? Certainly, there does seem to be evidence that scientists from developing countries do find it more difficult to get their work published than those in developed countries (1). Recent correspondence in Nature also highlighted the experience probably of many of having work rejected, at least on the surface, because of the language (2).

Clearly many articles are rejected because of inadequate command of English and nobody would expect a journal to publish an article which was full of grammatical mistakes in English. However, does this mean that a foreign scientist, not a native speaker of English but one who reads and writes English fluently, is at a disadvantage in getting published ? From the number of articles published by those whose native language is not English in prestigious international journals, it is obvious that being a native speaker is not an absolute prerequisite to publication. If a foreign scientist then has a good command of English, does it matter that she publishes in English rather than French, Finnish or Chinese ?

Influence of first language discourse patterns

In fact there is some cross-linguistic contrastive research to suggest that the foreigner is at a disadvantage. Even where the grammar and vocabulary may be perfectly adequate, it seems to be the case that a non-native may tend to transfer the discourse patterns of her native language to English. It has been suggested, for example, that Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean have different patterns of argument to English (3). Thus one study found that those Korean academics trained in the United States wrote in an `English' discourse style, while their colleague who had trained and worked only in Korea, with a paper published in the same anthology, wrote in a Korean style with no statement of purpose of the article and a very loose and unstructured pattern from the English point of view (4). More generally Hinds has put forward a widely discussed position that Japanese has a different expectation as to the degree of involvement of the reader compared to English, with Japanese giving more responsibility to the reader, English to the writer (3).

It might be objected though that this is relevant only to languages and cultures which differ greatly to English. However, research on German has shown that German academic writing in the social sciences has a much less linear structure than English, to the extent that the English translation of a German textbook was criticised as haphazard or even chaotic by American reviewers, whereas the original had received no such reviews on the European continent (5). Academic respectability in English is evidenced by the appropriate discourse structure but in German by the appropriate level of abstraction (6). Similarly, academic Finnish texts have been shown to differ in the way they use connectors and previews and are much less explicit than English in their drawing of conclusions (7). Spanish also has a similar pattern (8). English, therefore, would seem to be a more `writer-responsible' language than at least some other European languages.

Discourse in the natural sciences

It is interesting, though, that this research has mostly been carried out on social science rather than natural science texts. At least some of the features of German social science texts, such as syntactic complexity, do not apply to fields such as chemistry, medicine and technology (6). If we turn to a comparison in the field of the physical sciences, that of the introductions to articles in the related fields of geology, metallurgy and mineral prospecting, materials science, and materials and mechanical engineering, we do not find such differences (9). This comparison of the very different languages of English and Chinese, which traditionally have been said to have quite distinct rhetorical styles, did not find great differences between the languages. Regardless of language, all papers followed the classic pattern of such introductions, as put forward by Swales in his widely accepted CARS (Creating a Research Space) model (10) (1). The current version of this model sees research article introductions as being made up of three moves: establishing a territory, establishing a niche and occupying the niche. However, in the English-Chinese study there were differences in detail among the papers examined, which varied both according to discipline and to language. The most striking difference between the texts written by English or Chinese scientists, the latter both in English and Chinese, was the smaller section referring to the literature, with in some cases no literature review at all. This can be put down, however, quite simply to the lack of access to the literature by the scientists concerned, given the sometimes very poor availability of international scientific literature in China.

It would seem then that even languages with quite different discourse structures, like Chinese and English, do not differ so greatly when the genre concerned is the experimental natural science article. The conventions of the genre are strong enough to override whatever differences there might be in the general discourse conventions of the language concerned. Every practising researcher is familiar with the patterns in her discipline, so that she follows some sort of variation of Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion, whether these headings are explicitly given or not. This would appear to show that researchers in the natural sciences need not be so concerned that the background patterns of argument they are familiar with in their native language will carry through to their English: the patterns of discourse in science are provided by the pattern of argument in science, which is given by the structure of the discipline itself.

But this would be to ascribe to scientific discourse an underlying and unchanging logic which is far from the case. Studies of the history of the development of the research article in physics by Bazerman have shown that the process of development of this type of writing was a gradual one which evolved over time in line with the needs of the scientist to convince his audience of the correctness of his point of view (11). Thus the precise description of the experiment grew up because an audience wider than the original lecture audience of the Royal Society began to be addressed and needed to be told just what had taken place because they could no longer see it. Accommodation to the needs of the audience in the structure continues nowadays, so that many journals, for example, now ask that the methods section be printed at the end in smaller print because of its reduced importance. Only recently the editors of Nature redesigned their layout and suggested that authors endeavour to make their work more accessible to others who were not part of their own narrow field (12). The research article, therefore, does not reflect some sort of unchanging general nature of science but is a reaction to the changing needs of the audience of that article.

Other studies of contemporary science, such as those by Myers, have shown that before a work is published a great deal of negotiation on the precise version of the work to be published goes on between authors, editors and referees, a fact probably familiar to all practising researchers reading this (13). A researcher must therefore argue her case before the bar of the scientific community and her work will then be taken up and accepted to a greater or lesser extent in the form of citations in other scientists' future work. It follows from this that the scientific article is an argumentative work designed to put forward the point of view of the authors and does not simply reflect the pattern of scientific research.

Researchers, as a result, whether native speakers of English or not, have to learn how to write science. In this respect it does not really matter whether the trainee researcher is a native English speaker or not. Dudley-Evans, head of the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) Unit at the University of Birmingham, and a veteran of training foreign students how to write scientific English, points out in one study that the same types of mistake were made by a native speaker writing a PhD in biology as the non-native speaker of English, the differences being in quantity rather than type (14). Part of the socialisation into the scientific community, therefore, is learning to write science in the appropriate manner. This applies to the Englishman or the American as much as it does to the Frenchman or Thai writing in English.

English academic style

Even if we grant that the native speaker also has to learn how to write in the appropriate manner, nevertheless, it would seem that the scientist whose native language is not English is bound to have a stiffer test to pass. The overall rhetorical structure of the scientific research article is likely to reflect to some extent, as we have seen, the demands of the discipline, but there are still aspects of the genre as written in English which, while reflecting the needs of the genre, are also aspects of specifically English style. Thus one clear feature of the research article is the practice by writers of hedging their claims (15)(16). There are reasons for this lying in the rhetoric of the genre, in the need to qualify the strength of the position you are taking, which are quite in line with the prevailing ethos of science, such that claims should not be made which go beyond the strength of the evidence supporting such claims. The use of tests of probability is in the same spirit.

At the same time, however, such hedges would seem to be more in line with the English habit of understatement often commented on and even made fun of by foreigners. Certainly, the careful hedging of conclusions by the appropriate use of the correct verb would appear to be a very `English' thing to do. Witness the famous remark by Watson and Crick: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material" (17). Could you imagine, say, a German scientist writing in the same style such an important conclusion ? Hedging, it would seem, then, although it has its origins in the requirements of the scientific argument, is reinforced by the cultural preference of at least British English for understatement.

The syntax of the language also tends in the same direction, as English has a highly developed modality system which makes it relatively easy to express nuances of meaning in these areas. Thus it makes a considerable difference whether the author uses, for example, `can' or `could', not to mention `should' compared to `must' or `will' or `may'. In other languages, e.g. Malay, writers often do not use such a nuanced range, even if they are available, to express possibility, and would find it difficult to generate such distinctions so simply because of the differences in modality. Of course, they could if necessary, but these methods of hedging do not come so naturally to the writer in that language and, a fortiori, in English.

Thus I have frequently found when checking a paper written by a non-native speaking scientist for publication in English that their conclusions are presented in the following kind of more forthright style: "These results prove that". This is very often quite acceptable in the native language of the speaker, in my experience mostly Slovene and Hungarian, but in English the preferred style would be something more like "These results would seem to indicate that ". So in this respect the foreign scientist might be advised to learn the "more English" style.

Whether the foreign scientist should try and learn to write in this way, though, depends ultimately on your view of how language is used in communication. Arguments over the role of English in scientific communication are often conducted in the terms of a recent debate in the British Medical Journal. On the one side is the (native speaker English teacher) proponent of a simplified English, since many readers of the journal are not native speakers and their command of English is insufficient to follow the nuances and the cultural references picked up by the native speaker (18). On the other are two doctors (one native speaker, one not) who argue that the full poetic range of the language needs to be used (19). The first position is, at best pragmatic, at worst patronising. The second position is, at best elitist, at worst irrelevant.

World Englishes

The question arises, though, whether the debate needs to be framed in this very limiting way. If we raise our eyes from the narrow focus of the scientific research article and look at the broader position of English in the world, this altered perspective may cause us to think again. According to the latest figures I can find (February-March 1997), English is spoken as a first language by between 325 and 450 million people, as a second language, i.e. used for purposes of communication within the country, as in India, by between 150 and 350 million, and as a foreign language, depending on how strict your estimate, by up to a billion people. A `middle-of-the-road-estimate' would give 1,200-1,500 million speakers of English (20). Hence native speakers make up very roughly only about a third of the speakers of the language. A lot of the use of English, therefore, is between non-native speakers, say a Thai businessman talking to a Japanese businessman.

The same situation is true in the scientific world. When, say, a Swedish scientist writes an article or gives a conference paper in English, a large proportion of his audience is likely to be made up of those like him for whom English is not their first language. Is it necessary then, for the speaker to hedge his conclusions in the style that would be found appropriate by an English native speaker ? What if he is talking to a conference in Germany in English where the bulk of the audience may not share the native speakers' feelings about these hedges ? It would seem inappropriate for him to blindly follow the native prescription.

Outside the scientific arena the revolt against the native speakers' control of the language has been under way for some time. Around the world there have grown up other varieties of English, Indian English, Nigerian English etc, whose speakers have begun to demand that their Englishes be treated on a par with the English of Britain, the US, Australia or any other standard English. Nobel Prizes for literature have been written by authors such as Soyinka in what has been called these `New Englishes'. Linguists such as Kachru have argued strongly that these varieties of English have as much right to a standard status as the English of England or America (e.g. 21). It must be noted, though, that Kachru is arguing for equal rights for what he terms `Outer Circle' Englishes, i.e. the English varieties of countries like India where English has an important internal role.

Scientific Englishes

I would like to put forward the idea that the same argument can be extended to the role of English in a more or less clearly defined sphere such as that of science. If English is now the preferred language of international communication in science, then within the sphere of scientific communication, English should be seen as what it is, the language of science, not the language of Englishmen or Americans. It has been said that what is important in defining the status of a language is the feeling of ownership that the speakers of the language have (22). In other words, scientists the world over who use English to communicate science should stop using the native speaker as the reference group as to what constitutes appropriate scientific English; rather the reference group should be international scientists of whatever language background who use English to communicate. The objection to this argument that some will make is that not all of these scientists have an adequate command of English. The same argument applies precisely in countries like India where, of course, there is a cline in the ability to use English. Similarly, there is a range of abilities among those scientists who read, write and speak English internationally. The existence of a range of abilities should not obscure the fact that international users of scientific English should have the right to determine the type of English deemed acceptable or standard in that community. Scientists should determine that regardless of their native language.

As international scientific English becomes the preserve increasingly of the non-native speaker, as it will do if English continues its path towards greater and greater dominance of the world of science, then the same thing will happen to scientific English as has happened to general Englishes. We will see the rise increasingly of varieties of scientific English or `Scientific Englishes' which will deviate more or less from the standard. Something of the sort has perhaps begun to happen. Clyne notes that the language of some of the social sciences in English has started to be influenced by German social scientific models in North America (6).

In other words, the language will increasingly vary in terms of the requirements of the discipline itself, rather than the discourse styles of the general language. Thus English has a fairly linear style with a rather heavy use of metalanguage, as has been pointed out. This has led to such usage in scientific English, where these tendencies have reinforced the need in many scientific disciplines for a clear rhetorical structure to mirror the scientific practice of the discipline. For example, preparation articles in organic chemistry have a standard rhetorical structure which mirrors the stages of the preparation. Nevertheless, where developments in the discipline mean that, for instance, such linearisation is no longer necessary, then there may be changes. Thus nowadays articles in biochemistry may alter the linear parallelism of experiment and article by putting materials and methods in a separate section at the end.

Similarly, heavy use of metalanguage is more a feature of undergraduate textbooks in the natural sciences than research articles in leading journals. It is not necessary normally to signal a conclusion heavily because the reader is well versed in the subject and the significance of the work is obvious. This is brought out by comparison, for example, of the Research News section in Science with the original article, where the significance of the work and its connection with previous research questions is much more clearly signalled in the former.

The rhetorical demands of the discipline itself, therefore, would seem to play a much greater role in the natural sciences. Consequently, there seems little need to fear that increased internationalisation of English will lead to a decline in the ability of the language to communicate effectively. The demands of the discipline itself will act to constrain the use of the language in communicating the science.

In conclusion, therefore, I would argue that non-native speakers of English who communicate their science in English should not feel any sense of inferiority vis-a-vis the native speaker in this respect. The overriding framework in determining how to communicate should be the science itself, rather than the rhetorical style of the language. Where that style is a function of the needs of the genre and acts positively to communicate the science more effectively, then it should be respected. Where it is simply a matter of preferred native-speaker style, it can safely be ignored. The owners of international scientific English should be international scientists not Englishmen or Americans.


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