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Should language matter less to journals?

Posted by plosmedicine on 30 Mar 2009 at 23:51 GMT

Author: 'Erik' 'von Elm'
Position: MD MSc
Institution: University of Berne, Berne/Switzerland
Submitted Date: March 10, 2006
Published Date: March 17, 2006
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

PLoS Medicine now encourages translations in languages other than English; this decision can only be welcomed.

German-speaking readers are certainly pleased by the novelty of a PLoS title written in their language. In fact, the editorial starts with the first line of the well-known German poem "Lorelei" by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). This year commemorates the 150th anniversary of his death. Originating from Germany, Heine was an early European citizen and mediator between cultures. After travelling through Europe for years, he settled down in Paris. There, he wrote (among other poems) the "Lorelei", while his essays in French made German literature known to the francophone public.

In Heine's time, the question which language would prevail in science and other domains was yet undecided. In the 19th and the early 20th century pivotal works in different disciplines were published in languages other than English, as, for instance, evidenced in the biographies of the Nobel Prize laureates ( Apparently, insufficient knowledge of the one foreign language did not necessarily impede an academic career at that time.

Today, proficiency in English represents a luxury for many potential users of scientific information, as pointed out in the editorial. The same is true for the researchers themselves, who are driven to invest time and money in English courses only to try to communicate with their Anglophone peers on equal linguistic terms.

What can scientific journals do to overcome the existing language barriers in the meantime? Sure, they can allow the translation of their papers in other languages. But are they also ready to take the trouble to employ smart machines or humans in order to translate a manuscript submitted in one of Heine's languages before sending it for peer review?

By the way: an English translation of the "Lorelei" is available at

No competing interests declared.