Language doesn't feature much at the top

Dec 16 2010 Published by under Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

There is currently a debate raging over at The Economist over whether language shapes thought.  In the latest rebuttal, posted by the whimsical L.B., she makes the claim that:

"These days, scientists do not just make claims, they make measurements. The scientific study of how language shapes thinking comprises decades' worth of empirical discoveries, published in premier academic journals like Science and Nature..."

L.B. makes it sound like the two 'premier' journals regularly devote their pages to the sundry and subtle workings of the Whorfian question.  --Which is a misleading way to make it sound, I assure you.  (If by "like Science and Nature" she means PNAS, there may be slightly more credibility to the claim, but I'll take her at face value for the moment).

In the past year, I've had a number of manuscripts peer-reviewed at these journals, and in the interim, I've spent the time to actually dig through the archives of both journals to find out what work on language they've published over the last decade.  While L.B.'s claim is technically correct, it's also misleading.  The only Whorfian topics that have been published in either journal are to do with numerical cognition in the Pirahã.  'Decades worth' of discoveries have been published in other journals, no doubt, but Nature and Science have devoted relatively few pages to the question of how language shapes thought, or any other topic in language, period.

To give you a flavor: this year, Nature published 0 original research articles on language.  The best they did was a news brief on the genetic basis for stuttering and a feature on speed reading.  Science published 1.  On average, Nature publishes less than 2 a year on language; Science publishes a little over 3.  For Nature, that's 2 out of over 800+ articles published a year.  Clearly a hot topic.

By sifting through their archives, I was able to calculate how many articles on language each journal publishes yearly (not including review articles).  Get ready for impressively tiny figures:

2010 Science 1, Nature 0

2009 Science 6, Nature 5

2008 Science 4, Nature 2*

2007 Science 2, Nature 2*

2006 Science 3, Nature 1

2005 Science 1, Nature 0

2004 Science 6, Nature 1

2003 Science 0, Nature 2

2002 Science 4, Nature 2

2001 Science 2, Nature (not easily available)

2000 Science 2, Nature (not easily available)

*As many as 3 if you include work on 'nonverbal' numerical cognition.  And why would you?

There were at least two things that were interesting about this:

First, there were comparatively few straightforward behavioral studies by experimental psychologists (6).  The majority of the research published on language in these journals was neuroimaging or EEG work (14).  The next most popular category was comparative animal research (10), then 'exotic' language studies (6) -- all but one of which focused on a single Amazonian tribe.  Other topics included historical linguistics (5), speculative work on language evolution (4), genetics (2), and a single mathematical simulation (1).

Second, there are a number of names that feature over and over (and over) again in the list of published authors.  While I am not going to publish those names here, it is interesting that among the very few articles that are published, certain authors feature so prominently.  Undoubtedly, there are some very brilliant researchers in the field who design wonderful studies, achieve brilliant results, and write breathtaking papers; nevertheless, I find the repeats a little odd, given the raw statistical probabilities of getting a paper through the length of the review process at these journals.  (Principle of Least Effort, perhaps?)

Obviously, there is an enormous body of experimental research on language that gets published every year, in journals like PNAS, Psych Review, Cognitive Psychology, Cognition, Cognitive Science, Language (and so on, and so forth).  Why are so very few of these finding their way into the two top journals?  Why are the only papers devoted to the Whorfian question on the numerical capabilities of one tribe?

My best guess is that this isn't so much a problem with the editorial process, as with the field.  Both Science and Nature are run by professional editors, none of whom are experts in language or linguistics, and all of whom serve as editors across multiple subject fields.  What I assume this means, in practice, is that they hold the same 'reviewing' benchmark for a paper submitted in chemistry as they do in psychology: i.e., they want to see unanimously positive reviews.  Expecting unanimously positive reviews for a chemistry paper is fair.  There are established theoretical - empirical - methodological (etc) standards in chemistry.  The same cannot be said for psychology.  Take a fascinating finding that speaks to an important debate in language acquisition.  If the editors fully sampled from the field, they would have to solicit reviews from a Bayesian, a nativist, a developmentalist after Piaget, a connectionist, and so on.  Can you imagine all of those differing theoretical viewpoints coming together to endorse a novel contribution for high impact publication?  --Because I can't.  To get something groundbreaking through, I'm guessing you either need luck or serious reviewer ethics to come into play.  In my case, that hasn't happened yet, and clearly -- given the publication rates -- it doesn't happen all that often.  (Either that, or neither journal is particularly interested in publishing findings on language; a prospect I find unlikely).

Since I'm assuming many of my readers who work in language are curious what articles have been published, I've created an easy to access archive below.  If I missed a paper (or three), please let me know -- searching through journal archives is obviously an error-prone endeavor, and Nature has not fully archived their articles.  Eventually, I hope to update this post with corrections and links.

SEARCH: Science & Nature, By Topic

Note that some articles belong to multiple categories and are cross-listed accordingly.

Neuroscience (14)

How Learning to Read Changes the Cortical Networks for Vision and Language (Science, 2010)

Sequential Processing of Lexical, Grammatical, and Phonological Information Within Broca’s Area (Science, 2009)

An anatomical signature for literacy (Nature, 2009)

Neural processing of auditory feedback during vocal practice in a songbird (Nature, 2009)

Neural substrates of vocalization feedback monitoring in primate auditory cortex (Nature, 2008)

Precise auditory–vocal mirroring in neurons for learned vocal communication (Nature, 2008)

Predicting Human Brain Activity Associated with the Meanings of Nouns (Science, 2008)

Left Caudate and Language Control (Science, 2006)

Language Control in the Bilingual Brain (Science, 2006)

Integration of Word Meaning and World Knowledge in Language Comprehension (Science, 2004)

Functional Neuroimaging of Speech Perception in Infants (Science, 2002)

Left Hemisphere Cerebral Specialization for Babies While Babbling (Science, 2002)

Dyslexia: Cultural Diversity and Biological Unity (Science, 2001)

Brain potential and functional MRI evidence for how to handle two languages with one brain (Nature, 2002)

Comparative Animal Research (10)

De novo establishment of wild-type song culture in the zebra finch (Nature, 2009)

Neural processing of auditory feedback during vocal practice in a songbird (Nature, 2009)

Neural substrates of vocalization feedback monitoring in primate auditory cortex (Nature, 2008)

Precise auditory–vocal mirroring in neurons for learned vocal communication (Nature, 2008)

Performance variability enables adaptive plasticity of 'crystallized' adult birdsong (Nature, 2007)

Recursive syntactic pattern learning by songbirds (Nature, 2006)

Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for "Fast Mapping" (Science, 2004)

Computational Constraints on Syntactic Processing in a Nonhuman Primate (Science, 2004)

What's New, Pussycat? On Talking to Babies and Animals (Science, 2002)

Language Discrimination by Human Newborns and by Cotton-Top Tamarin Monkeys (Science, 2000)

"Exotic" Languages (6)

Log or Linear? Distinct Intuitions of the Number Scale in Western and Amazonian Indigene Cultures (Science, 2008)

The Limits of Counting: Numerical Cognition Between Evolution and Culture (Science, 2008)

Core Knowledge of Geometry in an Amazonian Indigene Group (Science, 2006)

Exact and Approximate Arithmetic in an Amazonian Indigene Group (Science, 2004)

Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia (Science, 2004)

Children Creating Core Properties of Language: Evidence from an Emerging Sign Language in Nicaragua (Science, 2004)

Typical Behavioral Experiment / Study (6)

Flexible Learning of Multiple Speech Structures in Bilingual Infants (Science, 2009)

Differences in Early Gesture Explain SES Disparities in Child Vocabulary Size at School Entry (Science, 2009)

Aero-tactile integration in speech perception (Nature, 2009)

Visual Language Discrimination in Infancy (Science, 2007)

Consolidation during sleep of perceptual learning of spoken language (Nature, 2003)

Signal-Driven Computations in Speech Processing (Science, 2002)

Historical Linguistics (5)

Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script (Science, 2009)

Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement (Science, 2009)

Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history (Nature, 2007)

Structural Phylogenetics and the Reconstruction of Ancient Language History (Science, 2005)

Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin (Nature, 2004)

Language Evolution (4)

Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts (Science, 2008)

Conceptual precursors to language (Nature, 2004)

Evolution of Universal Grammar (Science, 2001)

On the Origin of Internal Structure of Word Forms (Science, 2000)

Genetics (2)

Human-specific transcriptional regulation of CNS development genes by FOXP2 (Nature, 2009)

Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language (Nature, 2002)

Mathematical Simulation (1)

Defusing the Childhood Vocabulary Explosion (Science, 2007)

SEARCH : Science & Nature, By Year (Articles are from Science, unless indicated)

2010

How Learning to Read Changes the Cortical Networks for Vision and Language

2009

Sequential Processing of Lexical, Grammatical, and Phonological Information Within Broca’s Area

Flexible Learning of Multiple Speech Structures in Bilingual Infants

Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script

Differences in Early Gesture Explain SES Disparities in Child Vocabulary Size at School Entry

Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement

Aero-tactile integration in speech perception (Nature)

Human-specific transcriptional regulation of CNS development genes by FOXP2 (Nature)

An anatomical signature for literacy (Nature)

De novo establishment of wild-type song culture in the zebra finch (Nature)

Neural processing of auditory feedback during vocal practice in a songbird (Nature)

2008

Log or Linear? Distinct Intuitions of the Number Scale in Western and Amazonian Indigene Cultures

Predicting Human Brain Activity Associated with the Meanings of Nouns

Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts

The Limits of Counting: Numerical Cognition Between Evolution and Culture

Neural substrates of vocalization feedback monitoring in primate auditory cortex (Nature)

Precise auditory–vocal mirroring in neurons for learned vocal communication (Nature)

Individual differences in non-verbal number acuity correlate with maths achievement (Nature)*

2007

Defusing the Childhood Vocabulary Explosion

Visual Language Discrimination in Infancy

Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language (Nature)

Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history (Nature)

Performance variability enables adaptive plasticity of 'crystallized' adult birdsong (Nature)

Symbolic arithmetic knowledge without instruction (Nature)*

2006

Left Caudate and Language Control

Language Control in the Bilingual Brain

Core Knowledge of Geometry in an Amazonian Indigene Group

Recursive syntactic pattern learning by songbirds (Nature)

2005

Structural Phylogenetics and the Reconstruction of Ancient Language History

2004

Exact and Approximate Arithmetic in an Amazonian Indigene Group

Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia

Children Creating Core Properties of Language: Evidence from an Emerging Sign Language in Nicaragua

Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for "Fast Mapping"

Computational Constraints on Syntactic Processing in a Nonhuman Primate

Integration of Word Meaning and World Knowledge in Language Comprehension

Conceptual precursors to language (Nature)

2003

Consolidation during sleep of perceptual learning of spoken language (Nature)

Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin (Nature)

2002

Functional Neuroimaging of Speech Perception in Infants

Left Hemisphere Cerebral Specialization for Babies While Babbling

Signal-Driven Computations in Speech Processing

What's New, Pussycat? On Talking to Babies and Animals

Brain potential and functional MRI evidence for how to handle two languages with one brain (Nature)

Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language (Nature)

2001

Dyslexia: Cultural Diversity and Biological Unity

Evolution of Universal Grammar

2000

Language Discrimination by Human Newborns and by Cotton-Top Tamarin Monkeys

On the Origin of Internal Structure of Word Forms

21 responses so far

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Publisher Guide and Melodye, ScientopiaBlogs. ScientopiaBlogs said: Language doesn’t feature much at the top http://dlvr.it/BW2hM [...]

  • Alternative hypothesis: psycholinguistics isn't really conducive to short papers. Our methods are too complicated and too important to fit into the tiny number of words allowed. The best work involves complex theories which must be described, since -- unlike physics -- we don't have a clear distinction between theoretical work and empirical work.

    Of course, some people pull it off. Sometimes you have very interesting empirical work that requires very little in the way of methodological or theoretical explanation. And some people are able to write incredibly succinctly. But it's rare.

    I've never sent any psycholinguistics work to Science or Nature, and I don't expect I ever will. Frankly, I don't even really like psych science papers, because I think their word limit (4000 words) is too short.

    • melodye says:

      1) Unlike Psych Science, they do have a supplementary methods section, where you can fully cash out the details of your experimental design and modeling work. In practice, full Science and Nature papers end up being quite a lot longer than a Psych Science contribution.
      2) Your claim is that "our methods are too complicated and too important" -- but how is that not true of any of the other sciences they publish? I think the real issue here is that our methods aren't agreed upon, which is why we need to take such pains to elaborate and consistently defend them. If the methods were, you could reference another study in which they'd been extensively elaborated and peer reviewed, and go from there. Unfortunately, that's not typically the case. For example, one of our Science papers that saw rejection was using methods (and theory) identical to work we'd had published at Cognitive Science. We referenced the paper -- but neither of the reviewers read it.

    • Mark says:

      Our methods are too complicated and too important to fit into the tiny number of words allowed.

      This made me laugh. A lot.

  • James Kornell says:

    Is it because you work at the juncture of representation and content? Linguistics especially (where representation is content). Metacognition research has some of the same problems, I think for the same reason. After all, for any scientist, a huge element of effectiveness is metacognitive, but research on metacognition is rarely published, either. In "easy" subjects like physics, chemistry, astronomy, the representation is pretty obviously separated from the content. No so for linguistics or some kinds of experimental psych. People have a hard time with this, I think. (The obvious solution is to include images of brains. No relevance to the paper required. Science *loves* images of brains.)

  • "Shecky R." says:

    There are LOTS & LOTS of science topics that don't make their way, with great frequency, into SCIENCE or NATURE, but DO appear in more specialized journals... and I'm not so sure that isn't as it SHOULD be. If by "premier" you mean widely-known or widely-distributed, I s'pose SCIENCE and NATURE are still "premier" journals, but if you mean consistent "quality" I think a lot of folks would say the label is a misnomer.

  • Adriana says:

    Apart from the fact that language is underrepresented in scientific magazines – there are so many more highly specialized topics that not get enough attention in public. What about translation for example? What about the question what actually happens in the brain of a translator (the famous black box) while he or she is translating? For an English to Turkish translation for example –at which moment does the brain switch into the other language? What neural activity happens between Input (source text) and output (target text)?
    Questions that should definitely find more scientific attention!

  • varied languages will aid the thinking. well thats what other scientific research shows from sheffield university in the UK

  • Вы помните скандал, разгоревшийся прошлым летом? Тогда обладатель "Золотого тигра" Роттердамского кинофестиваля, вполне себе выдающийся фильм "Клип" сербского режиссера Майи Милош не получил прокатное удостоверение: запретительный документ был подписан рукой Ивана Демидова. Босс музобозовского человека в черных очках Владимир Мединский публично ругал "Клип" последними словами, что не помешало петербургскому фестивалю "Послание к человеку" пригласить Милош в жюри, правда, без "Клипа" (незадолго до этого показанного во внеконкурсной программе ММКФ). Все нормальные СМИ, и мы в том числе, откликнулись на эту возмутительную ситуацию и написали, что в цивилизованном мире ситуацию с откровенными фильмами решают возрастные ограничения. Это было за считаные недели до начала развернувшейся в России оргии с этими самыми ограничениями — вы не могли не обратить внимание на аршинные цифры "16+" и "18+", украшающие сегодня все афиши (включая совсем абсурдные надписи "Детям старше 18 лет" — тут на ум не приходит ничего, кроме анекдота: "Вовочка, но он же мальчик! — Ничего себе мальчик, 23 года!"). Исходя из этого, в России лицам допризывного возраста нельзя смотреть, слушать и читать ничего.

    Французская малышня хохочет — в отличие от чиновников Минкульта. Предполагаю, что они схватились за сердце и возопили: "Порнография!" Нет, никто напрямую не требовал вырезать эпизод, но фильму — на все сто детскому — решили дать ограничение. Да, "18+". Что, само собой, было равносильно прокатной смерти. В итоге компания "Вольга" с разрешения Алена Шаба вырезала веселого пса.

    Я вот думаю, может, надо с такой квазицензурой бороться, используя закон о защите прав потребителей? Вы купили билет и, если хронометраж фильма, показанного в кинотеатре, отличается от официального (его легко найти в сети, хотя бы на сайте imdb.com), можете требовать деньги назад. Должен быть выход. Раз уж нам так "повезло", что культурой в стране заведуют люди с менталитетом персонажа из песни Высоцкого: "Был в балете — мужики девок лапают!"

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