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Translating organizational research scales into a different language

New research explores how organizational psychologists translate scales into new languages as the field continues to globalize.

The field of organizational psychology is increasingly spanning across different countries, cultures and languages. As such, researchers engaging in cross-cultural research must often translate scales into a different language. Scales are simply a group of items that measure a psychological concept, and they must be developed meticulously by researchers or other experts.

One popular method of translation is called back-translation, where a bilingual person translates the scale into the new language, and another person translates it back to the original language to see how the scales compare. However, these translated scales are not always equivalent, meaning they don’t always have the same meaning across languages. This ultimately impacts the conclusions researchers can draw from cross-cultural studies.

Brian Swider

Beth Ayers McCague Faculty Fellow Brian Swider.

New research from Beth Ayers McCague Faculty Fellow Brian Swider examines decades of scale translation practices and provides important recommendations for future research.

Swider and his co-authors Anthony Klotz of University College London and Seo Hyun Kwon of Texas A&M reviewed 333 articles published in the Journal of Applied Psychology from 1997-2021 that used scale translation. They aimed to answer two primary questions: (1) how frequently do researchers report back-translation practices, and (2) how frequently do they report techniques and evidence of measurement equivalence?

The researchers found that 91% of articles reported using back-translation practices. However, the details surrounding the methods used were often unclear or underreported. Only 16% of articles included pretesting of scales (e.g., qualitative or quantitative examination of the scale before administering it) or had multiple raters. Even fewer (4%) reported quantitative results about scale equivalence. They also found that since 1997, researchers have become more likely to report using back-translation; however, the details being reported have decreased.

Swider notes that the research findings help facilitate robust research practices in the study of human resources, organizational behavior and business, especially as the fields grow globally.

“This research helps ensure that findings from around the world are consistent and comparable as well as serving as a source of aid for scholars from geographically and culturally diverse backgrounds,” said Swider. “With this research, we’re advancing science to better our collective understanding of the phenomenon of people at work.”

Based on these findings, the researchers have multiple recommendations to improve back-translation practices in future research. First, authors should report the language used by participants and whether scale translations were used. They should also report who the translators were (e.g., number of translators and their qualifications), and any issues that arose during the translation process. Third, authors should pretest their scales by having a bilingual person qualitatively review them or use quantitative methods to determine the degree of equivalence between scales. Finally, authors should include both versions of the scale in the article when possible. Ultimately, these suggestions will help improve the transparency and rigor of scale translation practices. 

The full paper, Back-Translation Practices in Organizational Research: Avoiding Loss in Translation, is available in the Journal of Applied Psychology.