BU professor adapting biology textbook for other countries

English is the international language of science. Its near-universal use to communicate and disseminate new findings and results has arguably had real benefits, allowing people to gain access to the world’s scientific knowledge by learning a single language.

But some areas of science are, by definition, local. Richard Primack, a biologist at Boston University, finds the fact that publications are overwhelmingly written in English by authors who tend to live in developed countries problematic for a wide range of biological sciences, ranging from ecology and forestry to conservation biology. Flora and fauna vary wildly different between the United States and Southeast Asia, for example—and so do the land management practices and threats from human development.

To bridge the gap, he has taken a novel approach to translating and adapting his textbook, Conservation Biology, into 30 editions for diferent countries or regions, in 18 different languages. Primack’s approach, which he described in an essay this month in the journal BioScience, is novel: for 18 years, he has been recruiting coauthors who will translate and edit his textbook, adding context and examples that will make the work relevant for students in India, Japan, Latin America, or Italy.


The structure of the collaboration has been somewhat unusual. Coauthors identify local publishers who either pay to get access to the content from Sunderland-based textbook publisher Sinauer Associates or, in many cases, they get those rights free. Grants have helped support the creation of some textbooks, and at times the money comes directly from Primack—in one case, he bought a computer for a Hungarian scientist who needed the equipment to complete the project. In another, he sponsored the Latin American edition after a long and fruitless struggle to find a sponsor.

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Primack says the collaboration process is satisfying and time-consuming—it will involve hundreds of e-mails and learning on both sides. Many of the authors have never written a textbook before, so Primack will help them to think about what types of examples from their own country are best to include and which ones to leave out. He’ll emphasize a rounded book that looks beyond a single species to many kinds of ecosystems. But his coauthors teach Primack a lot, too.

“When I interact with these people, I learn a lot more about what’s happening in these countries, and those examples get put back into the English language edition,” Primack said. For example, he said that his collaboration with a Japanese coauthor taught him about the transformation of the rural landscape of that country. As people have abandoned farming, former rice paddies and woodlots have either been transformed by intensive agriculture or abandonment, leading to changes in the bird species.

Kamaljit Bawa, a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, coauthored the South Asian textbook with Primack. That edition included many local examples, such as the fate of the tiger and the image on the cover—a golden langur monkey.

“You also don’t want to just pick up an example because it’s local—you want to find the one that best illustrates the concept,” Bawa said.


Some significant changes and additions were needed for South Asia, Bawa said, including turning a small section of the original book that dealt with the role local communities take in managing biodiversity into a hefty chapter.

Primack hopes that other authors and textbook publishers will consider taking up the sort of project, which he believes could be used in any area of research in which local experience is important, including geography, economics, or medicine.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.