Lara Ferry: Research in Many Languages

Hello Readers!

Wonderful to be saying hello to you again, as Senior Editor, and to be able highlight some really fun items in Functional Ecology (couldn’t resist). In this blog post, I will actually be focusing on the blog itself. You might have noticed recently that some of the blog posts, particularly those under the “Behind the Paper” tab, are written in languages other than English. I, personally, was so excited to see my US colleague, Martha Muñoz, posting in her native Spanish, and to read about her work while practicing my limited Spanish—developed back when I was more actively collaborating with my Chilean colleagues and working with Chilean graduate students.  Thankfully, my Chilean colleagues were kind to me and spoke fluent English, and I did not have to rely upon my pretty sad Spanish language skills learned during my pre-college years. I did make it my personal mission—while teaching a graduate short course in-country (taught in English at the request of my hosts)—to place Spanish text alongside the English text on every slide of my power point presentation. That was, without a doubt, the most challenging teaching experience of my career, but it was also incredibly rewarding.

I share all this because it relates to a really important issue — we place a tremendous burden on scientists around the world to read, speak, and write perfect English in order to be able to participate in science and science publishing. And, as hard as it was for me to try to speak with my Chilean colleagues and students in their native language, it is even harder to learn English for our colleagues that aren’t born speaking it. According to Oxford University, English is one of the hardest languages to learn, with lots of rules, a mix of word origins, more tenses than most languages, and some truly odd idioms. It was a breath of fresh air, to me, to see our authors conveying their work in their native or first languages, making the work more accessible to all communities and regions of the world, regardless of where the work was done.

I want to highlight just a few of these recent articles in case you missed them. Appearing in Spanish were posts by Dr. Aubrey Barker Plotkin, summarizing work on the impacts on trees of defoliation by insects, and by Dr. Martha Muñoz who shared recent research investigating the effects of climate warming on tropical lizards. Dr. Eve Davidian published a post in Swahili, describing her and her team’s work on hyena social rank, courtship, and stress. Dr Bàlint Uvëges published his work on toad chemical defenses against predation in Hungarian. All of these blogposts are also published in English, and a handy link is provided at the top of each post.

Why does this matter? I point out the accessibility issues as shown above. However, there are even more serious repercussions from the current trends in the production of scientific knowledge, as measured by who is publishing the papers and where they reside. In an extensive analysis of papers published over the last three decades, Gomez et al., (2022) find that scientific communities (defined by clusters of disciplines) increasingly focus on—and cite research from—what they define as highly-active countries. This comes at the cost of citing work from other countries, with those papers being cited less and less over time within the analyzed dataset. They suggest that this inequality is likely to hamper the production and development of novel ideas in science. While our blogposts are only one small effort, to me they represent an opportunity to highlight science and scientists that may not be in that small cluster of disproportionately cited countries and to bring attention to their work. This would then serve to reinforce the scientific network and community connectivity. 

I hope you will join me in enjoying—and appreciating the necessity of—these posts!

Lara Ferry,

Senior Editor,

Functional Ecology

Stay up to date with Lara on Twitter here!

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