Switch to English ‘risks social relevance’ of European humanities

There have been big declines in the proportion of humanities and social science papers published in Norwegian, conference told

September 14, 2019
Source: iStock

Humanities and social science academics in continental Europe risk losing their social relevance if they continue to switch to English as the language of publication, according to a bibliometrics expert who has monitored this transition in Norway.

Gunnar Sivertsen, head of bibliometric research at the Oslo-based Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, warned a conference on the future of the humanities that, if the current trend continues so that no research is published in Norwegian, “I think we will lose our societal relevance, even with translations”.

In Norway, the proportion of humanities papers published in Norwegian has slumped from around 65 per cent in 2005 to less than 40 per cent by 2014, according to research presented to delegates by Professor Sivertsen.

In the social sciences, it had declined from around 55 per cent to under 30 per cent during the same period.

The switch to English in humanities was “like a generation shift. I can see it mainly in the younger researchers,” he told humanities scholars at Positioning the Humanities in the 2020s, held in Hanover, Germany.

“An increasing proportion of the active researchers in Norway are from other countries. That’s part of the process,” he said.

But the problem was not simply that the Norwegian public could not understand English papers. “Most Norwegians read English, no problem,” he said.

Instead, “it is that in the main Norwegian social science journals, or in the main Norwegian history journal, you can publish on other types of research than you present internationally”, Professor Sivertsen explained.

Particularly in parts of the social sciences, if researchers want to publish in a US journal, they needed to use US data, he said.

Some scholars have started organising to stop the drift towards exclusive use of English. Professor Sivertsen, who himself published a paper in English and Catalan last year, pointed to the Helsinki Initiative on Multilingualism in Scholarly Communication, a campaign to keep local language publishing alive.

“There are so many reasons why publishing in both or three languages should be supplementary, and not opposed to each other,” he said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

"Particularly in parts of the social sciences, if researchers want to publish in a US journal, they needed to use US data" This is a strong statement, and I would have liked to see some evidence for this. Rather than complaining about 'US data', it would make more sense to encourage European researchers and institutes to develop good data. This can be done; for example, Uppsala University (Sweden) and PRIO (Norway) have worked on collecting data on conflicts and peace that are now widely used by European, American and Asian scholars.

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