A geologist’s earthshaking shift: publishing his discovery in a Chinese-language journal

When Lu Hongbo rewrote the history of where tectonic plates collided in China, he chose a Chinese publication to do it in: ‘No language is more beautiful than Chinese’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 6:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 10:29pm

As he made his way up the southern foot of Langshan Mountain, on the western arm of Inner Mongolia’s Yinshan range, Lu Hongbo had a lot on his mind. The geologist knew his research into tectonic movements in northern China might draw sceptics and criticism because it was challenging long-standing theory. This very field trip was almost cancelled due to a lack of funding.

Then, of course, there was the diagnosis of leukaemia Lu received a year earlier. He was relying on a generic drug from India to fight the disease. How long, really, did he have?

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Suddenly, driving up a mining road cut through the middle of the mountain, Lu slammed on the brakes of his SUV, all those thoughts flying from his head. Some of the roadside rocks exposed a dull greenish colour in the sunshine that played among the cliff shadows. There was only one explanation for that colouring: the rocks were ophiolites, the remnants of ancient oceanic crust – found in ranges like the Alps and Himalayas. They were markers of titanic collisions between the planet’s continental plates.

Lu’s Langshan discovery in 2015 – followed by more than two years’ investigation by his team at the China University of Petroleum and other institutions – revealed a spectacular, previously unknown event in Earth’s history.

At some point in the late Cretaceous period – from 100 million to 66 million years ago – North China and Central Asia collided and produced the Yinshan mountain range. At its peak, the Yinshan might have reached the height of the Himalayas, towering over a vast area of flatlands in the south.

Lu’s discovery revised the world’s understanding of Asia’s land mass and its formation. It reset the time and location of the final collision at the northern boundary of the ancient North China plate. That collision was previously thought to have occurred 250 million years ago at a location farther north.

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As momentous as Lu’s research was, what he did next was almost as stunning. He chose to report his findings not in a prestigious journal with a worldwide readership and global influence like Science or Nature, but in the much smaller Geological Review, published bimonthly by the Chinese Geological Society.

That is, Lu, 60, insisted on publishing the biggest discovery of his life in a publication considerably less well read or regarded than a journal that would promote his findings – and his professional acclaim – much farther.

But why?

“I am a pure geologist. This can be the most important discovery in my academic career. I am determined not to publish the paper in an English journal, but write it in Chinese, my mother language,” said Lu, who retired from the professor post last year after more than three decades of work.

“Publishing the article in a Chinese journal is not beneficial to myself nowadays, but meaningful to the scientific society in China. Someone has to sacrifice and try.”

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Einstein published his landmark papers in German, Marie Curie wrote in French; even Newton’s Principia Mathematica went to print in Latin. Yet, after the second world war, as the United States rose to pre-eminence, English became the universal language of science.

Today, more than 80 per cent of papers published around the world in peer-reviewed journals are written in English. In Chinese universities and research institutes, it is often felt that only a “loser” would publish a paper on a native-language journal. Chinese papers are usually not taken into account, or considered but with less weight, in a researcher’s performance review.

That bias gnawed at Lu. “A paper should be judged by its original content, not by the language,” he said.

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English does make exchanges among researchers from different countries easier, but it forces non-English speakers to spend extra time and effort to learn and master a foreign language.

Moreover, according to Lu, Chinese scientific discoveries and research must serve China first, and papers published in Chinese are better understood by the nation’s scientists and university students. Rather than struggle with an unfamiliar language, researchers and students can focus more on the ideas and experiments the papers discuss.

More than that, Lu said he hoped to contribute to a scientific revolution of sorts in China. Chinese-written reports, he said, would eventually “increase national confidence and reduce the number of blind-eye followers,” suggesting that too often Chinese scientists take their cues from Western researchers instead of pursuing inquiries of their own.

Lu wrote his paper in Chinese and submitted the manuscript to Geological Review, a bimonthly by the Chinese Geological Society. The journal was founded in 1936 to challenge the dominance of China’s academic outlets that published in foreign languages. It had already published innovative studies that influenced numerous generations of geologists in China and around the world.

The paper not only contains hard science but also philosophical thoughts developed from Lu’s long career – his awe of nature, for example, which he describes as a geologist’s best teacher, posing quizzes and questions and revealing answers reluctantly and inconspicuously.

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Lu said he had spent several weeks polishing his article, word by word. “I want my research paper as readable as a piece of literary work,” he said.

After two rounds of review by anonymous peer scientists, the paper was released online in July – with a long abstract in English. Lu quickly received an email from an Australian geologist who congratulated him on his work and expressed the hope they might work together.

In the age of the internet and social media, new ideas spread fast. And as machine translations improve, the “language gap may soon become an issue of the past,” Lu said.

Born in the Inner Mongolia city of Chifeng, Lu studied geology in Nanjing University and became one of the first graduate students in geology in China after the Cultural Revolution. He took part in numerous expeditions and made some major discoveries, including the Qiangtang Basin oil reserve in Tibet.

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In 1999 Lu migrated to Canada for career development and personal reasons and later became a Canadian citizen. While declining to elaborate on those issues he made clear: “The Canadian citizenship does not change the fact that I have grown up and spent the most time of my life in China. I feel proud of my Chinese cultural background. No language is more beautiful than Chinese,” he said.

Lu does not oppose English as a tool for scientific communication. Since returning to China in 2002, he has given lectures on plate tectonics in English to graduate students. He encouraged and helped students publish papers in English in international journals. He is also the author of a geology textbook in English, An Outline of Earth Sciences.

But Lu is doing all he can to promote Chinese writing. An excerpt of his blog has been selected as reading material in a Chinese public servant qualification exam. His blog articles on Sciencenet.cn, the largest online community for Chinese scientists, often rank among the top posts in terms of views.

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Lu, who lives with his wife, in Qingdao, Shandong province, said he would continue his research after retirement. His leukaemia remains under control and he can run faster and jump further than some younger scientists in field trips. He plans to revisit Langshan and other areas to gather more samples, which may lead to the discovery of new mineral or energy resources.

“On geology, the gap between China and the US is small. The problem in China is that many people are cheating the system. They write tonnes of superficial papers which have no original idea or use to society at all. They are chasing so-called top journals like dogs after bones,” Lu said.

“China has no shortage of genius, but of hard, honest work.”