Does the widespread use of English lead to retractions in research?

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I was intrigued when a friend drew my attention to a recent PLOS ONE article by Albert Costa et al which investigates the role language plays in ethical decisions. At least one retraction or corrections seem to be in every issue of the major scientific journals. Over the last few months several clients have remarked on this to me and begun to question whether the ethical ethos in science is being eroded.

Their standard explanation is that researchers are more likely to take shortcuts since the pressure to publish is so high. No paper means no grant or fellowship means no career. Ergo short cut. I have never been convinced by this chain of logic. As Costa et al write in their abstract:

Should you sacrifice one man to save five? Whatever your answer, it should not depend on whether you were asked the question in your native language or a foreign tongue so long as you understood the problem. And yet here we report evidence that people using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas. We argue that this stems from the reduced emotional response elicited by the foreign language, consequently reducing the impact of intuitive emotional concerns. In general, we suggest that the increased psychological distance of using a foreign language induces utilitarianism. This shows that moral judgments can be heavily affected by an orthogonal property to moral principles”.
This points to a danger that in most research labs English is the common language and most conduct their research in English. Thus,the likelihood that people are speaking (and thinking) in a non-native tongue increases the chances that a corner may be cut when a career is under threat.

When I worked in a German-speaking environment at ABB in Switzerland, the official working language was English. Over time I figured out when we had important decisions to make, it was more productive to switch the conversation to German, the native language of the other participants in the discussion. This improved the quality of the decisions, both technically and ethically.

This recent research supports one simple approach I recommend to leaders in research environments: to encourage people to think in their mother tongue about the more difficult choices they face in projects. When coaching I let people ponder in their native language, even when I don’t understand it. Afterwards, they tell me what they came up with, in a language I can understand.

What role do you think working in a non-native language plays in scientific retractions?

This article first appeared on LinkedIn on 15 July 2014

Photo: Julia Manzerova

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