Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Beyond lipstick: how languages can change the scientific Babel

Carmen Pérez-Llantada

As an applied linguist interested in science communication, an important specialised domain of language in society today, I have developed high perceptiveness of the richness and the power of the words that scientists skilfully and craftily use to describe observable facts, share them with their expert peers and persuasively align their readership’s views with their own specialist perspectives.

Two issues in particular have attracted my attention in relation to the way language –and languages, in the plural– shape new knowledge in this specialised domain. The first issue is the dramatic impact that the Internet has had on the use of language for professional (expert-to-expert) communication of science online. Today, scientists are incited to enhance the contents of their publications online for gaining greater visibility and increasing the impact of their work (Aalbersberg et al., 2012). This mean that they need to move beyond traditional forms of writing, such as writing for journal publication purposes and become creators of innovative, and promotional web-mediated texts such as graphical abstracts, author videos, audioslides or podcasts to accompany their journal articles. In the official blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, Anderson (2009) questions the real value of these innovations by arguing that they are merely “lipstick on a pig”. What this mere lipstick on objective scientific accounts uncovers the complex agendas of knowledge intensive societies. Scientific knowledge production published in high stakes journals and cited widely is a key indicator for measuring the socioeconomic performance of world countries in a more than ever competitive global landscape.

While it is understandable, at least to some extent, that these innovations respond to socioeconomic, institutional and even personal interests, it is somewhat difficult to comprehend the prevailing monolithic view of English-only as a language of science in the research world. Doubtless, a shared or common language is indispensable for boosting international collaboration, knowledge sharing and wider dissemination, especially in the context of global health threats. But today other languages of science, both national and local, are also increasingly taking a strong foothold in science communication. These languages are used to inform and educate citizens about issues of science, and even engage them in scientific research processes otherwise carried out only by scientists. Additionally, they increase citizens’ scientific literacy (Bonney et al., 2009; Fecher and Friesike, 2014).

This takes me to the second issue, the need to boost the “multilingualization of new and existing knowledge available only in English” so that field practitioners and policy makers can use such knowledge for addressing problems at a local scale (Amano et al., 2016). Alongside this, there is a need to promote multilingual public (expert-to-lay) communication of science online and bring to the fore its capacity to simultaneously target “gloCal”, both global and local, audiences.

How to preserve the rich linguistic ecology in public communication of science is, possibly, in the hands of multilingual scientists. Drawing on the technological affordances of the Web 2.0 and on their linguistic repertoires, they can creatively construct sophisticated digital texts, with different modes (visual/verbal/audiovisual) and in different media to communicate science beyond expert audiences. These digital composing practices involve transformation and recontextualisation of specialised scientific knowledge to make it accessible to lay audiences and, very often, the use of not just one, but two or more languages. Blogging, microblogging and citizen science projects are some examples of multilingual practices that support science communication practices online.

Preserving and promoting language diversity is timely and, in fact, an urgent priority at a time of profound technological and social transformation. Internet-mediated international cooperation and scientific research have been crucial to overcome the cruel and unprecedented pandemic that has unexpectedly and inadvertently thrown humankind into an era of “slowbalisation” (Irwin, 2020). Training and supporting scientists in becoming effective multilingual communicators of science in digital environments should then be at the heart of every language and research policy decision-making.

Aalbersberg, I. J., Heeman, F., Koers, H. and Zudilova-Seinstra, E. (2012). Elsevier’s Article of the Future. Enhancing the user experience and integrating data through applications. Insights: The UKSG Journal, 25(1), 33–43.
Amano, T., González-Varo, J. P., Sutherland, W. J. (2016). Languages are still a major barrier to global Science. PLoS Biol, 14(12), e2000933.
Anderson, K. (2009). The ‘Article of the Future’ — Just Lipstick Again? [Last accessed on 10 June 2021]
Bonney, R., Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V. and Shirk, J. (2009). Citizen science: A developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience, 59(11), 977–984.
Fecher, B. and Friesike, S. (2014). Open science: One term, five schools of thought. In S. Bartling and S. Friesike, eds., Opening Science. Cham: Springer, pp.17–47.
Harmon, J. E. (2019). At the frontiers of the online scientific article. In M.-J. Luzón and C. Pérez-Llantada, eds., Genres and Science in the Digital Age: Connecting Traditional and New Genres. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 19–40.
Irwin, D. (2020). The pandemic adds momentum to the deglobalisation trend. VOX CEPR Policy Portal. Retrieved from [Last accessed on 10 June 2021]

All photographs have been downloaded from Pixabay and are under a Creative Commons CC0 license.

Research Genres Across Languages by Carmen Pérez-Llantada

About The Author

Carmen Pérez-Llantada

Carmen Pérez-Llantada is the author of Scientific Discourse and the Rhetoric of Globalization (Continuum, 2012, Book Prize awarded by the Spanish Association for Anglo-American St...

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