How a bias toward English-language science can result in preventable crises

Ben Panko writes: Thirteen years ago, a deadly strain of avian flu known as H5N1 was tearing through Asia’s bird populations. In January 2004, Chinese scientists reported that pigs too had become infected with the virus—an alarming development, since pigs are susceptible to human viruses and could potentially act as a “mixing vessel” that would allow the virus to jump to humans. “Urgent attention should be paid to the pandemic preparedness of these two subtypes of influenza,” the scientists wrote in their study.

Yet at the time, little attention was paid outside of China—because the study was published only in Chinese, in a small Chinese journal of veterinary medicine.

It wasn’t until August of that year that the World Health Organization and the United Nations learned of the study’s results and rushed to have it translated. Those scientists and policy makers ran headlong into one of science’s biggest unsolved dilemmas: language. A new study in the journal PLOS Biology sheds light on how widespread the gulf can be between English-language science and any-other-language science, and how that gap can lead to situations like the avian flu case, or worse. [Continue reading…]

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