Why is it important to publish an abstract in the indigenous language of the research country?

The BES journals have recently started publishing papers which include a second language abstract. One of the first Journal of Ecology papers to do this was “Community‐level flammability declines over 25 years of plant invasion in grasslands” which included a translated abstract in te reo Māori, an indigenous language of New Zealand and one of the country’s 3 official languages. In the blog post below, the authors explore the significance of translated abstracts and why they are important.

If western science is to become relevant to indigenous cultures, one path forward is through the language of that culture. The importance of te reo Māori was summarised by one of the great Māori Battalion veterans and prominent Ngāpuhi (an iwi, or tribe) leaders Sir James Hēnare, “The language is the core of our culture and mana [validity]. Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori” (The language is the life force of the mana Māori).

The Māori Language Act (1987) was established to empower indigenous communities by making te reo Māori an official language of New Zealand. This encouraged the use of te reo Māori in schools, universities, government agencies and during official proceedings. Te reo Māori reflects and encapsulates the philosophies of the Māori world-view, often unlocking meanings that would otherwise remain hidden if approached, even with the best of intentions, from another language or culture. The fact that universities across New Zealand have recognised the importance and relevance of academic works written and submitted in te reo Māori goes some way to acknowledging this.

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The ‘Pīngao: Weaving the connections’ project is a collaboration between ecology researchers and Māori organisations. It blends scientific and traditional ecological knowledge to improve conservation outcomes for the threatened endemic sand dune binder called pīngao, Ficinia spiralis (Cyperaceae), which is a foundation species of New Zealand sand dunes and an important source of fibre for weaving. Photo: Stacey Bryan

Publishing in te reo Māori is exciting and meaningful for New Zealanders because it gives mana to our indigenous culture and acknowledges the connection that exists between language and our identity. It provides the platform for science and Māori culture to coalesce, and find common ground based on principles and values. As such, it is our way of helping to address the need for growing Māori representation in the science sector.

New Zealand’s national identity is a multicultural society with strong roots in te ao Māori (Māori world view). This is globally promoted and is enshrined in our legislation through our founding document, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (te reo Māori version of the Treaty of Waitangi). As New Zealanders, we have an obligation under Te Tiriti o Waitangi to preserve te reo Māori for future generations and publishing science in te reo Māori gives life to these commitments. 

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Woven putiputi (flower) using pīngao (Ficina spiralis). Photo: Stacey Bryan

Understanding Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Māori knowledge (mātauranga Māori) and culture is vital for New Zealand scientists if we are to have effective working relationships with Māori communities and attract Māori into science careers. Similar to other indigenous cultures in many colonised nations, Māori are underrepresented in University STEM programmes and ecological research.

In the case of New Zealand, it is not a lack of interest or love of nature preventing Māori from engaging in the biological sciences, but a lack of relevance of classical scientific paradigms to Māori. European-dominated education systems do not traditionally do well at fulfilling the needs of indigenous people. However, recognition of indigenous knowledge and environmental values is increasingly supported within the New Zealand science community. 

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This panel was woven at a project workshop by scientists, conservation practitioners and weavers. The yellow fibre is pīngao (Ficinia spiralis) and the white fibre is kiekie (Freycinetia banksii, Pandanaceae), another New Zealand endemic species. Photo: Stacey Bryan

Language is the gateway to culture, and to understand culture, we must embrace the language. To create a place in science for people who identify as indigenous to a country, ‘cultural safety’ is a key concern, and this means creating a place for traditional knowledge and understanding to be heard. This may require recognising fundamental understandings and values from typically ‘non-science’ perspectives, such as tika (truth, correctness and justice), pono (validity and sincerity), and aroha (compassion, passion and love). Other approaches such as the ‘Kindness in Science’ movement and co-developed, collaborative research can also add to the broader picture of fostering diversity in science.

Much has been written about the potential benefits of documenting and applying indigenous knowledge in science, but it is frequently written in the future tense as aspirational comments. In part, this is due to an affinity for traditional approaches in science, the need to describe indigenous knowledge in Western scientific terms, and the difficulty of accessing indigenous knowledge.

The New Zealand science sector is attempting to address these gaps by having all major sources of science research funding require applicants to demonstrate a clear understanding of the possible origins of their work in mātauranga Māori and the relevance of their work to Māori. Despite such relatively recent initiatives, the proportion of Māori students and researchers in the sciences is still very low and more work needs to be done.

Te reo and mātauranga Māori offer scientists the tools to tap into indigenous communities all over the world by emphasising shared values and a willingness to connect. Promoting the publication of abstracts in indigenous languages is not only beneficial for Maori but also for non-Maori because it allows better understanding of different world views. The British Ecological Society’s encouragement for abstracts in indigenous and native languages in journal articles shows the importance of these world views and we hope that this helps inspire indigenous scientists around the world. When people hear their own voice in science, they are more likely to feel that they have a place in science!

John Perrott1, Hannah L. Buckley1, Valance Smith2, Timothy J. Curran3, Josep Padullés Cubino4Nicola J. Day5

1School of Science, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. 2Te Ara Poutama, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. 3Department of Pest-management and Conservation, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand. 4Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, USA. 5Biology Department, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada.

The full paper is open access and available to read online for free: Community‐level flammability declines over 25 years of plant invasion in grasslands

3 thoughts on “Why is it important to publish an abstract in the indigenous language of the research country?

  1. Pingback: Prestigious UK science journal publishes in te reo Maori – grundons.com

  2. Pingback: Volume 106 Issue 4 | Journal of Ecology Blog

  3. Pingback: Another Step Towards More Open Science | Journal of Ecology Blog

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