Should I publish in my native language?

The German IR journal Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen. Source: Nomos Publishers.

People often claim that publishing in US outlets is be perceived to be optimal, and English is the lingua franca in IR. But those from a non Engliish-speaking background are confronted with the problem of deciding whether the paper should be written in English (and be published in English journals) or whether it is more advisable to write in one’s native language.

In the last edition of the German flagship IR journal ‘Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen (ZIB)‘, Matthias Albert and Michael Zürn issued a plea to also publish in German. They neither say that one should publish in one’s native language exclusively, nor that the ratio of English language to native language authored papers should be determined by any arbitrary rule. IR scholars should rather publish both in English and in their native language. It’s a great piece, and I suggest reading it, but I also want to address some bits and pieces that I find hard to swallow.

Also in your native language, please.

Political science research, and IR in particular, are mostly problem-driven. This is what motivates scholars to pursue a particular topic. But what is identified as a problem likely varies from region to region; different problems are valued in different communities. Zürn and Albert argue if we want to have a pluralism of perspectives in IR and look at different phenomena, we also need plural discourses and plural discourse spheres who can value these different approaches (even if US journals may not).

They also issue a warning. Focusing mainly on English publications leads to less visibility in, and decoupling from, the society in which one lives and works. Not publishing in local journals at all also means not participating in the local discourse. In the end, this raises the question of why the (domestic) society should fund political science and IR in particular if scholars are not engaging in local discourses.

Thinking about career options may also be related to the publishing question. If one wants to be employed in the local context, one will need a widely recognized profile. This doesn’t only mean having publications in highly-ranked US journals, but also being widely recognized outside the area of expertise. Attending conferences of domestic poli sci associations and publishing in widely read, general poli sci outlets in the native language helps to build up name recognition. Remember, this will come in handy in the job search since selection committees will mostly not be composed of scholars from the IR community but rather be a collection of political scientists from other fields.

Another important point I would like to add is that developing your thinking in your native language helps you to better grasp problems and to be more concise and precise in your analysis. Here, we need to be honest: The level of proficiency in English will never come as close as the language diversity available to one in the native language. Being constrained by the words I can use also constrains my thinking.

More issues to consider: Does every paper need to be presented at huge conferences such as ISA? Should there be more locally organized opportunities to present research? What are other possible opportunities to present one’s research and build up name recognition other than academic publications?

There are more directions for this debate

Despite the valid points raised by the article, I struggled with some aspects of it. In addition to this plea, the IR section of the German Political Science Association has stated that all papers and presentations at the next IR conference in September will have to be in German. As if this wasn’t enough already, there will be a roundtable discussing which language for German IR at the next IR Junior Scholars Conference. This is obviously too much of a coincidence to not be a concerted effort. What are the concerns behind this effort? (I do see that one reason to start the discussion would be better now than later or better than never at all.) Is there really less publishing activity in our native language?

Albert and Zürn argue that we need multiple discourse spheres because of the problem-driven nature of research in poli sci / IR. But since when is a shared language a logical prior to a common discourse sphere? I don’t see why these two aspects need to be intertwined. Many people in the academy come from outside Germany, but they are influenced by the problem perception and are part of the community. Nevertheless, chances are high that they aren’t able to publish and present in this language. How do we deal with non-native speakers as part of a local research community and discourse sphere? Are these people not part of the community because they do not speak the language?

The authors explicitly direct their plea at junior scholars. Why does it need to be directed at junior scholars? How do we know that junior scholars publish less in their native language? Compared to whom and when? If so, we need to ask why, and a plea should at least be based on a sound problem analysis. Funnily enough, however, this claim doesn’t hold for the ZIB. A quick and dirty search through the last five years of ZIB reveals that only 11 out of 28 original research or literature review articles were authored by professors (and 7 of these 11 articles were co-authored with junior scholars or non-professors; it’s a little different when including all publications [1]). So, shouldn’t we engage in a discussion about why professors don’t publish in the German flagship outlet either? Why are there only some sentences taking up the role of professors? One could at least consider and elaborate that professors can and should lead by example.

If we mean to take the problem of decoupling from society seriously, we should include forms of interaction with the public other than academic publication. Albert and Zürn mention classic media, such as TV appearances, public, talks, op-eds, and policy pieces. Maybe junior scholars engage with media as well, but just leave trodden paths. Have they actually looked at all the efforts that are out there in terms of social media such as blogging and tweeting? Take the German junior scholars’ blogging activities at Sicherheitspoltik-Blog, Democracy & Democratization and Bretterblog, to only name a few. This very blog was created to engage in a broader discourse, although welcoming input from all BTS students necessitated setting up an English blog. Cautioning junior scholars to not only focus on academic publications in journals is fine, but we then should try to actually assess the various ways of engaging with the public.

So what should you take from this?

Maybe three things:

First, think about what, when and why to publish in English and in your native language. There are valid reasons to do both. The Albert and Zürn piece is a great stimulus in this regard.

Second, maybe the authors could have done a slightly better job. Directly addressing and singling out junior scholars (or any other group), almost lecturing them, doesn’t seem to be the way to go. It’s not the responsibility of a single group. Instead, truly engage in a discourse if and why scholars in general don’t publish or publish less in their native language.

Third, and related to this last point, we need more data looking at the publishing efforts of IR scholars. Claims in this discussion seem to be based on impressions but there is no clear evidence. Having this kind of data would help us to identify patterns, and to explain particular developments.


[1] The ZIB differentiates between research articles and literature reviews, and forum and symposium contributions. The latter two sections either directly respond to previously published ZIB articles (forum) or debate particular world events or IR topics such as the financial crisis, methods in IR, state of the art of IR theory, etc. (symposium). Including the latter two categories would change the overall picture: 42 out of 73 publications are authored or co-authored by professors and 41 are authored or co-authored by non-professors. Thus professors rather publish in the forum / symposium section (roughly 2/3 of these articles) then in the original research article and lit review sections (roughly 40 percent; but note: only 15 percent of the original research articles are exclusively authored by professors, single or co-authored).

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