Imprimir Republish

Scientific communication

Language in decline

Study identifies a fall in the number of Brazilian scientific articles written in Portuguese

Nastco / Getty Images

Brazilian scientists are less frequently using Portuguese to communicate the results of their research, choosing instead to publish them in English in an attempt to increase their visibility and international reach. This is the conclusion of an analysis of thousands of scientific articles in a range of fields by authors from 34 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, published in journals indexed in the Web of Science (WoS) and SciELO between 2002 and 2020. Released at the end of 2021 by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), a bibliographic database service run by Clarivate Analytics, the report found that the number of English-language articles published in journals indexed in WoS has grown consistently since 2002—as was expected—while the number of papers written in Portuguese in the same period remained static at low levels. “The research system in Brazil has advanced greatly since the 2000s, with strong government support and a focus on innovative areas,” ISI chief scientist Jonathan Adams told Pesquisa FAPESP. “There is less public funding for science in the country these days, but many researchers have continued to collaborate with partners abroad, the results of which are published in English, of course.”

The biggest change was observed on SciELO, an online library created by FAPESP in 1997 that now holds data on almost 300 Brazilian journals and over 1,000 international open-access journals. The library was created in Brazil, but its model has been adopted in several countries (mostly Spanish speaking), which are now part of the SciELO Network. After continuous growth between 2002 and 2010, the number of papers written in Portuguese began to fall, reaching the lowest level in more than a decade in 2020 (see graph). “English being the dominant language of science is nothing new, and this is increasingly evident in articles produced in Brazil,” says Leandro Lopes de Faria, from the Department of Information Science at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

Alexandre Affonso

The difference between the two databases is partly related to their differing profiles: in the WoS, Brazilian scientific literature appears diluted among journals from all over the world, while SciELO contains many Brazilian publications, meaning the concentration of papers by Brazilian authors is higher. “A decrease or stagnation of Portuguese-language articles in the WoS is natural, since its scope is more global,” says Sigmar de Mello Rode, president of the Brazilian Scientific Editors’ Association (ABEC).

In the case of SciELO, the changes to the characteristics of Brazilian scientific output did not occur by chance. According to Abel Packer, general coordinator of the virtual library, it resulted from an alteration to its admission guidelines. “In 2015, we started requiring that journals in our collection adopt a series of measures designed to increase the visibility and international impact of their articles,” he explains. One aims to increase the number of papers published in English (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 227). The new guidelines achieved the desired results: 77% of the articles indexed in SciELO in 2021 were written in English. “In 2014, this figure was 57%,” highlights Packer. They also demanded that journals have a more international editorial team. The target was for at least 35% of editors and reviewers to have foreign affiliations from 2016 onward. “Most of our titles have met the minimum requirements.”

Data from a 2021 report on linguistic diversity in science by the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI) corroborate this trend. Conducted in partnership with the Elcano Royal Institute in Spain, the survey involved institutional consultations and interviews with coordinators of scientific networks and repositories in Ibero-American countries. It also analyzed data from the WoS. It found that in 2020, 84% of scientists in the region published in English. Among Portuguese and Brazilian scientists, only 3% and 12% respectively opted for Portuguese. In Spain, 13% of researchers published papers written in Spanish. The rate was 12% in Mexico, 16% in Chile, and around 20% in Argentina, Colombia, and Peru.

The increased number of articles published in English affected Brazil’s position in the context of global science. The country’s international collaboration rate hit 40% in 2021. But this is still one of the lowest international collaboration rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, even though Brazil produces the most science in the region. The ISI report estimates that approximately 67% of Chilean articles had a foreign coauthor in the last five years. “Chile is an exception, given its involvement in the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array [ALMA] radio telescope network in San Pedro de Atacama, one of the largest astronomical observatories in the world,” says Adams.

The growing trend of non-English-speaking countries encouraging their scientists to publish in English is based on the hope that their work will thus reach a wider audience. The most prestigious journals, which receive the most citations—the main indicator used to measure the impact of a scientific study—are written in English. In Brazil, this effort is part of a policy of internationalizing scientific output that has been pushed by state and federal funding agencies for years. One example is the Qualis System, used by the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) to classify the journals in which graduate programs publish their scientific results. Since being reformulated in 2009, the tool has placed even greater value on high-impact international journals. “The entire national system for evaluating scientific output is based on an approach that directly and indirectly encourages and values publication in English,” emphasizes Claudio França, a librarian at the Central Library of the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES) who specializes in the topic.

There seems to be a consensus that articles written in English receive more citations than those in other languages, but factors such as the number and regional diversity of coauthors, as well as the originality of the content, also have a decisive impact on performance. One of the most recent indications of this fact was a 2017 study in the journal AMBIO. The authors analyzed 1,328 articles in journals indexed in Elsevier’s Scopus database and found that 66.3% of the papers in English had at least one citation—for articles in other languages, the figure was 53.7%.

Alexandre Affonso

SciELO’s recent experience supports this link. According to Packer, the measures adopted in 2015 improved the performance of Brazilian journals. The Brazilian Journal of Soil Science, for example, saw its impact factor (IF) rise from 0.609 to 1.683 between 2016 and 2020—the IF measures the number of citations received by all the articles published in a journal over a two-year period. The IF of Science & Public Health jumped from 0.780 in 2016 to 1.336 in 2020. The Brazilian Journal of International Politics went from 0.298 in 2016 to 1.114 in 2020. “In general, the percentage of SciELO journals with an IF greater than 1 increased from 26% to 62% in the period, and those with an IF of more than 2 rose from 3% to 16%,” says Packer.

Other implications associated with the use of English in scientific communication processes are still not frequently discussed. Writing an article in English often results in an increased workload for scientists. Many are not fluent in English or do not have the money needed to hire translators familiar with academic language. “Even those willing to pay have difficulty finding professionals who have a high level of academic English and know both the disciplinary content and the rhetorical conventions of academic journal articles,” wrote Mary Jane Curry, a researcher at the University of Rochester, USA, in Inside Higher Ed.

Kyria Finardi, a professor from UFES’s Department of Languages, Culture, and Education and a researcher on its Graduate Program in Education, recognizes that publishing in English helps increase the visibility and impact of Brazilian science. She emphasizes, however, that it can also reduce the visibility and value of knowledge with a regional impact that is not of major interest to international journals. “Furthermore, in fields such as linguistics, languages, arts, humanities, and applied social sciences, many studies relate specifically to local and regional issues and involve individuals who do not necessarily speak English,” she points out. Jacqueline Leta, a biologist from the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), highlights that many scientific terms and concepts are widely used by the academic community, regardless of language. “But we can’t generalize this to all areas,” she says. “Many studies deal with aspects of local culture that are so specific that they can only be adequately addressed by the native tongue.” Another potential risk is that Brazilian scientists could end up changing the scope of their research in pursuit of “topics of major interest to the international scientific community, to the detriment of topics with regional impact or specific to local communities,” adds França.

According to Finardi, institutional policies that encourage scientists to publish in English make them more likely to seek out collaborations with countries in the Northern Hemisphere, especially the USA and Western Europe. “They know they will have a greater chance of publishing in high-impact journals and receiving more citations as coauthors with researchers from these countries.” The ISI report found that regional collaborations between Latin American and Caribbean countries has developed slowly, increasing from 2% in 1981 to just 3.3% in 2020. “This surprised us,” says ISI’s Jonathan Adams. “Regional partnerships are an important factor in scientific development in Asia and the Middle East, so this will need to be on Latin America’s agenda if it wants to boost its science and education systems and take advantage of a global knowledge-based economy.”

Leandro Faria of UFSCar argues that publishing scientific articles in English is fundamental to a strategy that aims to increase the visibility and impact of Brazilian science. “The estimated number of English speakers exceeds one billion,” he points out. “If Brazil wants to show the world its capacity to produce quality science, it needs to do so in English, but this doesn’t mean that we need to abolish publications in Portuguese.”

Some scholars have called for changes to the way Brazilian scientific literature is assessed, without hindering the internationalization of science in the country. “We need to recognize the importance of articles written in Portuguese in fields that traditionally focus on issues specific to Brazil, but without comparing them to the impact of articles published in English in international journals,” says Faria. “One strategy would be to publish all or some content in both English and Portuguese, but this would involve additional costs,” suggests Leta, who says such an approach could ensure the country was not held hostage to a language that could lose relevance in science in the future, as Latin, French, and German have before. A growing number of journals in the SciELO group are already doing this. “Ten years ago, 17% of journals published more than 20% of articles in bilingual format. In 2021, the number was 25%,” highlights Packer.