Universities in regions where the local language diverges from English face greater hurdles publishing their research in top journals, a new study finds.

Researchers looked at the extent to which a university’s local language differs from English and the impact that has on that institution’s research performance, as measured through the number of publications in the most influential academic journals.

The study included universities from countries where the local language is similar to English (e.g. Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany), as well as from countries such as Finland and Japan, whose main language spoken differs from English more.

Even a minor increase in language distance to English resulted in a marked decrease in a university’s research quality score: a 1% increase in language distance corresponded to 0.215% fewer papers published in journals with the highest impact.

Researchers found the performance of Belgian universities in (linguistically similar to English) Dutch-speaking regions to be between 12% and 19% better than those in the country’s (less linguistically similar to English) French-speaking regions, despite common national policies.

Research performance was assessed across 54 subjects from five fields – natural sciences, engineering, life sciences, medical sciences and social sciences – using the Shanghai Ranking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects 2020-21, and linguistic distance was measured using a tool available on the website eLinguistics.net.

The findings were robust even when controlling for a range of factors, from proportion of international staff at the university to a country’s economic development, youth academic achievement, university degree rate, politics, culture, and trade with and geographic distance from English-speaking countries.

The results underscore the uneven playing field for countries, universities and individuals in the realm of academic research.

Enhancing early education in English has been proposed as a potential solution, and the shift towards teaching in English in many global universities has improved research performance.

However, the researchers point out that such policy changes involve compromises. Increased emphasis on English training comes at the expense of other subjects as well as local demands to address language skills and educational inequalities.

“Ultimately, these insights can inform more equitable and effective strategies for fostering research excellence on a global scale,” said co-author Dr Justin Tumlinson, Associate Professor in Business Analytics at the University of Exeter Business School.

“We urge policymakers to consider these findings when balancing trade-offs between embracing English and the cultural and regional labour market pressures to conform to the local language.”

“Our research also asks questions about the influence of English proficiency on the evaluation of research performance, and whether metrics should include a broader range of factors.”

Linguistic distance to English impedes research performance” is co-authored by Dr Yihui Cao from the University of Westminster, Professor Robin Sickles from Rice University, Texas, Dr Thomas Triebs from Loughborough University and Dr Justin Tumlinson from the University of Exeter Business School. It is published in Research Policy.