Heading for a crash?

Heading for a crash?

The website “Plagiarism Today” posted an article last summer linking an increase in the amount of plagiarism to the advent of social media and on-line technology more generally. This works both ways, as technology is also a mainstay of the battle against plagiarism with a variety of software programmes now being available to help spot it in written academic work.

Explanations for the increase in plagiarism are many and various. However, the role played by the dominance of English and linguistic difficulty gets little attention.
"Paraphrasing is arguably the highest and most synthetic language skill of all."

An interesting light was shed on this in a 2008 report by the European Molecular Biology Organisation, which looked at the impact of the demands on non-English speaking scientists of writing up their research in English. The research quotes a publication from 1998 by S. Myers (‘Questioning author(ity)’) who points out that, “paraphrasing is arguably the highest and most synthetic language skill of all”, and refers to the critical role in academic discussion of a researcher being able effectively to summarise and paraphrase the arguments of others in their own words as part of the process of defining a context for their own ideas, and points out how tricky this can be for someone dealing with highly technical material in a different language. As a consequence, some of these researchers can end up inadvertently (and entirely innocently) straddling the line between plagiarism and the legitimate discussion of the ideas of others.

This related mainly to difficulties experienced by Latin-American writers. More recently, and in a slightly different vein, the BBC reported on a campaign by German
"...the quality of international scientific discourse is losing out..."

academics who were complaining that the quality of international scientific discourse is losing out because of the dominance of English as the main language of most scientific journals. They have set up a campaign group called ADAWIS (Association for Maintaining of the German Language in Academia) to raise awareness of the benefits of making sure that the language of science does not become divorced from the social, national, cultural and linguistic context of the researchers who contribute to it.

This was also echoed in other work done by EMBO in 2008 which examined the impact on Latin American research of English being the language used by the most widely read scientific journals of record. In particular they referred to the fact that the careers of non-English speaking scientists could be adversely impacted by their
"...the careers of non-English speaking scientists could be adversely impacted..."

publishing of their most important work in non-English language journals. The effect of this was observed to be a reduction in the number of citations of their research, potentially preventing ground-breaking research getting proper attention. To illustrate the point, they refer to another potentially disenfranchised major language group, citing a prediction made in a study by the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies which suggests that “if France were to improve its English proficiency by 10% […] the number of French Highly Cited Researchers would increase in the long run by 25%.”

Of course this does not fully allow for the impact of technology on the dissemination of scientific and other research results, which has been significantly broadened as a result of the number of open access platforms that now exist and the astonishing way in which search (and translation) engines can provide access to a range of scholarly output that would have been impossible for researchers to achieve in the pre-digital age. An interesting illustration of what impact this lack of universal
"Many of these arguments reflect an underlying unease with the de facto linguistic hegemony of English"

dissemination might have is the proposition that a lot of the economic theories about demand management that we currently associate with John Maynard Keynes had in fact been arrived at earlier and independently by Swedish economists of the Stockholm School in the 1920s, and might have been put to use to deal with some of the problems of the Great Depression had it not been for the fact that they were barely known of outside Sweden, as a result of only being published in Swedish.

Many of these arguments reflect an underlying unease with the de facto linguistic hegemony of English, which has been powerfully boosted as a result of the technology revolution of the last thirty years. This has given easy access to incomparably greater quantities of information than we could ever have accessed in the past. However, it would be a stretch to go on to conclude that this has also made us wiser given the deeply troubled state of the world in which we now live.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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