Engine Room column: Language issues in scholarly writing are tricky

An extensive discussion on choice of language in scholarly writing took place in the leading Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, in January and February. Kone Foundation has clear views on the matter, but there are many issues for which easy solutions cannot be found. Kalle Korhonen, head of research funding, is embarking on a new series of articles, the purpose of which is not to proclaim what he or the foundation thinks but to discuss contemporary issues in philanthropic work and to increase understanding and promote discussion.

The authoring of scholarly text is one of researchers’ main tasks, and the first audience of the text is usually one’s own academic community. When academics express their opinions about which languages should be used in scholarly writing, they occasionally generalise the situation in their own field, thus ending into two opposite sides:

1) “Since the most common language for scholarly publications is English, every academic should be using it.”

2) “In many academic fields, languages besides English can and will be used in the future.”

My background is in humanities, and I use Italian and English in scholarly articles. This is why it is easier for me to inhabit the second of the two planets. But there are other issues to consider in the choice of academic language.

The differences among academic practices are very visible to us working at Kone Foundation, which on one hand funds social sciences and humanities, and on the other hand funds environmental science – but no other natural sciences. Scholars in humanities and social sciences use English and other languages, whereas natural scientists use English. Between 2011 and 2016, according to the statistics of Finland’s Publication Forum (Julkaisufoorumi), 55% of the peer-reviewed articles written by Finnish scholars in humanities were in English, 31% in Finnish and 14% in other languages. Seventy-five percent of the articles published by social scientists were in English, 22% in Finnish and 3% in other languages.

Evenly dividing the academic fields in two might seem a bit antiquated when one considers the influence of the increasingly accessible scholarly articles on the internet and the seemingly more prevalent and cross-disciplinary characteristics of contemporary academic work. But in my view, the changes caused by open science and cross-disciplinarity have not yet achieved their full impact.

What everyone (at least in Finland) seems to agree on is that one language or one text genre is not sufficient when academic knowledge reaches those in the outside world, such as decision makers or broader audiences. If one performs research on an indigenous population of Peru, for instance, one must be able to speak or write about it – with the participants and others – in ways other than just using academic English. At the foundation, we have a strong will to support this kind of outreach work.

Kone Foundation encourages researchers to write in both English and other languages. We annually award the prize “Vuoden Tiedekynä” to academics who write scholarly articles in Finnish. The scholars who evaluate the grant applications received by the foundation are not obsessed with the so-called “top journals”; most important are the content and the quality of the academic work. This means that writing scholarly articles in Finnish, Swedish or Spanish does not decrease the possibility of success for a researcher who applies for funding.

Still, many researchers feel that writing scholarly articles or books in Finnish for publication within the research communities of Finland is a problem. A fairly recent development is the evaluation system of academic publishing channels called Julkaisufoorumi (Publication Forum), which is connected with the state funding of universities. There is evidence that the Forum does not discriminate against publishing in; the universities’ internal communications, however, seem to be directing academics away from using Finnish. Can it thus be inferred that Kone Foundation is causing harm to the career prospects of the researchers it funds?

And what about developing countries, and the globalisation of academic work? Is it useful for an Indonesian academic to write in Bahasa Indonesia, or for a Finn in Finnish (or in Swedish) on a theme that is interesting to both? Should we simply try to make everyone understand a scholarly article by turning to a common language? However, understanding is not just about the name of the language but about the genre of the text. There must be intermediaries, interpreters or methods of understanding that make the content understandable to a person in another field.

As with other speakers of relatively small languages, language skills are a strength for scholars from Finland. Scholars in humanities and social sciences typically must, at minimum, acquire academic writing skills in more than one language. We who are familiar with developments in sociolinguistics believe this also benefits the academics’ own thinking. Even if they do not write in different languages, they must at least be able to read, as an immense amount of excellent research has been published in languages other than English.

Some critics connect writing in national languages – and especially the urging of others to do so – with nationalism. There have certainly been periods in history in which language choices, even in academia, were guided by nationalist motivations. This might still be the case in Russia or France but hardly in Finland. On the other hand, it seems to me that English is considered somehow less “colonialist” than other languages. If so, why?

Now I ask you, dear reader: how can a research funding organisation promote plurilingualism in research and support interaction across language barriers? When we encourage our grantees to publish or self-archive their articles openly on the internet, how do we contemporaneously support publishing in different languages? When they shifted online, numerous academic publications across the globe successfully changed the concept of a scholarly journal, incorporating elements that reach a wider audience. How can a funding organisation advance such refreshing developments? What would be the most useful funding instruments for translation and language revision, for which financial support has never been easy to procure?