This gulf between English and the other languages means that non-English articles, when they get written at all, may reach a more limited audience. On SCImago Journal Rank—a system that ranks scientific journals by prestige, based on the citations their articles receive elsewhere—all of the top 50 journals are published in English and originate from either the U.S. or the U.K.
In short, scientists who want to produce influential, globally recognized work most likely need to publish in English—which means they’ll also likely have to attend English-language conferences, read English-language papers, and have English-language discussions. In a 2005 case study of Korean scientists living in the U.K., the researcher Kumju Hwang, then at the University of Leeds, wrote: “The reason that [non-native English-speaking scientists] have to use English, at a cost of extra time and effort, is closely related to their continued efforts to be recognized as having internationally compatible quality and to gain the highest possible reputation.”
It wasn’t always this way. As the science historian Michael Gorin explained in Aeon earlier this year, from the 15th through the 17th century, scientists typically conducted their work in two languages: their native tongue when discussing their work in conversation, and Latin in their written work or when corresponding with scientists outside their home country.
“Since Latin was no specific nation’s native tongue, and scholars all across European and Arabic societies could make equal use of it, no one ‘owned’ the language. For these reasons, Latin became a fitting vehicle for claims about universal nature,” Gordin wrote. “But everyone in this conversation was polyglot, choosing the language to suit the audience. When writing to international chemists, Swedes used Latin; when conversing with mining engineers, they opted for Swedish.”
As the scientific revolution progressed through 17th and 18th centuries, Gordin continued, Latin began to fall out of favor as the scientific language of choice:
Galileo Galilei published his discovery of the moons of Jupiter in the Latin Sidereus Nuncius of 1610, but his later major works were in Italian. As he aimed for a more local audience for patronage and support, he switched languages. Newton’s Principia (1687) appeared in Latin, but his Opticks of 1704 was English (Latin translation 1706).
But as this shift made it more difficult for scientists to understand work done outside of their home countries, the scientific community began to slowly consolidate its languages again. By the early 19th century, just three—French, English, and German—accounted for the bulk of scientists’ communication and published research; by the second half of the 20th century, only English remained dominant as the U.S. strengthened its place in the world, and its influence in the global scientific community has continued to increase ever since.