The scientific community is international but it is surely dominated, and influenced by, something less international – the overwhelming predominance of the use of the English language.
In the past when that dominance was less extreme scientists were more aware of the need to use non-English sources. Scientific degree courses often had a requirement for a degree of scientific fluency in an alternative language. I learned German and Russian and have often needed to translate scientific papers in both these languages. In fact, several times I can trace a breakthrough in my research to a Russian or German paper I translated.
So, I was often disappointed when searching the literature to come across papers in a less dominant language like Mongolian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Arabic, etc. Very often these were published in unattainable obscure journals or periodicals. While I was aware that such papers were perhaps of poor quality I still lamented my inability to check that out for myself. I felt I might be missing something useful.
I can’t help thinking that scientific reviews, even systematic ones, may suffer from such omissions. After all the problems of expense and the probably poor quality of obscure papers usually mean that even systematic reviewers will not be able to obtain obscure papers and their translations.
But there is the other side. What happens if ideologically motivated groups able to make the financial investment obtain and translate obscure papers which fit their political or commercial biases? Can that not result in the “skewing” of readily available literature? Could it result ion the wider availability and influence of poor quality research?
One would hope scientific reviewers critically and intelligently appraise the papers they review. This would help prevent promotion of poor science. But not all scientific reviewers may be that objective. And certainly, such poor quality science can be promoted in the popular literature and used for political and ideological campaigns.
Bad science promoting the fluoridation/IQ myth
This is what has happened with the promotion of the fluoride/IQ myth by anti-fluoride campaigners. Several years ago the Fluoride Action Network (the main activist group campaigning against community water fluoridation internationally) paid for the searching out, and translation into English, obscure articles (mainly Chinese) suggesting a link between fluoride in drinking water and child IQ. These articles represented in almost all cases poor quality research mostly published in obscure journals, newsletters and conferences. Given the bias of FAN, preference was clearly given to articles supporting their party line.
The result is that these articles have now entered into English language scientific literature – via publication of the translations in the journal Fluoride – a poor quality, English language journal, linked organisationally and financially to FAN. This has introduced an ideologically promoted skewing of the available literature – on top of the well-understood publication bias (negative results are rarely published). Such skewing is important for reviewers such as those in the US National Toxicology Program considering a new systematic review on (see Fluoride and IQ – another study coming up).
Don’t get me wrong. Despite the biases of this translation process I like to see such obscure studies, even poor quality one, made available to researchers. And sensible, conscientious reviewers will take the poor quality into account. But less objective researchers can opportunistically use such material to support their preferred hypothesis. This has happened with the fluoridation issue, for example, with the paper of Grandjean & Landrigan (2014) which is continually used by anti-fluoride campaigners (see Repeating bad science on fluoride). This is a secondary effect where the poor quality research that is selected, translated and published in a poor quality journal like Fluoride can then make its way into more reputable journals (like The Lancet) without any further evidence. Adding to the skewing of the available scientific literature.
And all of this provides ammunition to the unscrupulous ideologically motivated campaigners. Critical assessment of the research is the last thing on their minds and they are certainly not in the habit of even reading, let alone critically understanding, the papers they promote in their arguments.