burden of communicating

Tuesday, February 6, 2019

The burden of communicating

As science becomes increasingly globalised, a failure to successfully communicate the significance of your work may leave you increasingly marginalised, both intellectually and perhaps financially.

Two recent reports in Nature highlight the burden that communication in English can place on researchers who speak English as a second language, and the possible risks of failing to communicate well.

Jazz up your website, change your name
In a letter to Nature Masao Ito and Thorsten Wiesel suggest that Japanese researchers are mostly not internationally visible. This low international profile prejudices them in potential international collaborations and funding.

The authors cite the example of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) which funds many international projects in the life sciences. The HFSP scans search engines and publication databases regularly to identify possible collaborators and reviewers of grant applications. This process is less likely to find Japanese scientists because they have “a lack of international visibility” due to poorly organised and accessible lab websites, and frequently similar names and initials.

They give some practical advice on how to raise the profile of your website, but stop short of suggesting you change your name if you are hard to find on medline.

You could consider just giving yourself an additional first name. If a Dr. T. Suzuki took ‘Xanadu’ as her second name to become ‘T.X. Suzuki’, a medline search would go from almost 10,000 items to her papers alone!

If you do not have access to Nature articles, you can read the full article in the Nautilus blog.

Becoming ‘English only’
Another article published this month in Naturejobs discusses the burden on non-native English speaking scientists of having to write and present in English. Quoting Japanese and Korean researchers, the story suggests that the sheer time it takes to learn and write English reduces productivity in the lab. Furthermore, proficiency in English can give a researcher a certain caché that can actually have a real impact on a career within their own national context, and conversely poor ability in English can hamper career advancement.

What interested me was the arguments given by researchers from Japan to Korea to Spain for the importance of researchers continuing to communicate their work in their own language. This may be particularly important to keep technicians well-informed, and to keep up public interest in research.

The duty to communicate

The bottom line is that every researcher, whether English speaker or not, has the responsibility to communicate their results to both to their scientific peers, and to anyone else who may be interested in their work.

In my experience as a writer about science and medicine, it is scientists and physicians in the US who are perhaps most aware of this need. They consistently present their data at meetings in a professional and engaging manner, and their institutions often provide press releases and support for any interested journalists.

Yes, they have the major advantage of English. But in the end, the responsibility to communicate results rests with each researcher, and they must do whatever it takes to be heard and understood. For a scientist in Japan this may mean struggling to prepare a talk in English for an international conference, but may also involve writing a review or commentary in Japanese for their home audience. And if they are about to publish key results, it may mean press releases in both Japanese and English, that include a link to their well-organised bilingual website.

What is your experience? If English is mandated in your institute to what degree does the institute provide training and support? I would be interested in any comments readers had.

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