We are often told that nowadays, all the world’s knowledge is available at our fingertips – just a quick Google search away. But what happens when users search for information in their own language? For example, when searching for a scientific term, do search engines provide English-, Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking students with the same level of access to quality scientific information? This question is addressed by a new study, conducted at the Technion and recently published in Public Understanding of Science.
The study found that search results for terms in English are of better quality than those provided for equivalent terms in Hebrew and Arabic. Additionally, most of the differences between the languages pertained to pedagogical aspects of quality, that is, the extent to which the content was geared towards young users, rather than the scientific aspects, such as the accuracy of the content. Some of the largest differences between the languages were found for terms related to nutrition and metabolism, such as “carbohydrate,” “protein,” “enzyme” and “metabolism.”
These findings are based on the top Google Search results presented to users in Israel for 30 basic scientific terms in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. The terms pertained to three scientific domains: biology, chemistry, and physics. Each search result’s overall quality was determined using scientific criteria, such as content accuracy, the author’s authority, and the use of sources; pedagogical criteria, such as references to everyday life and the quality of audiovisual materials; and criteria specific to online content, such as recency and interactivity.
According to Kawther Zoubi, who conducted the study as part of her masters’ thesis at the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, “these findings help us understand the digital divide and the social factors that affect our ability to develop science literacy. Our understanding of science depends on the environment we live in and the extent to which we have access to quality scientific information. This depends on our proficiency in different languages.”
Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari of the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, who oversaw the study, added: “The scientific and educational communities must act to mitigate the digital divide. We all have the right to access quality scientific information in our language.”
The study was conducted by Kawther Zoubi, Dr. Aviv Sharon, and Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari of the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, along with independent scholar Dr. Eyal Nitzany.
The study is available under an Open Access license (CC BY-NC 4.0) from Public Understanding of Science, published by SAGE Journals.
Zoubi, K., Sharon, A. J., Nitzany, E., & Baram-Tsabari, A. (2021). Science, maddá and ‘ilm: The language divide in scientific information available to internet users. Public Understanding of Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/09636625211022975
Accompanying video: https://youtu.be/ZYTlIdUWxss