Evaluating the frequency of English language requirements in clinical trial eligibility criteria: A systematic analysis using ClinicalTrials.gov

PLoS Med. 2021 Sep 14;18(9):e1003758. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003758. eCollection 2021 Sep.


Background: A number of prior studies have demonstrated that research participants with limited English proficiency in the United States are routinely excluded from clinical trial participation. Systematic exclusion through study eligibility criteria that require trial participants to be able to speak, read, and/or understand English affects access to clinical trials and scientific generalizability. We sought to establish the frequency with which English language proficiency is required and, conversely, when non-English languages are affirmatively accommodated in US interventional clinical trials for adult populations.

Methods and findings: We used the advanced search function on ClinicalTrials.gov specifying interventional studies for adults with at least 1 site in the US. In addition, we used these search criteria to find studies with an available posted protocol. A computer program was written to search for evidence of English or Spanish language requirements, or the posted protocol, when available, was manually read for these language requirements. Of the 14,367 clinical trials registered on ClinicalTrials.gov between 1 January 2019 and 1 December 2020 that met baseline search criteria, 18.98% (95% CI 18.34%-19.62%; n = 2,727) required the ability to read, speak, and/or understand English, and 2.71% (95% CI 2.45%-2.98%; n = 390) specifically mentioned accommodation of translation to another language. The remaining trials in this analysis and the following sub-analyses did not mention English language requirements or accommodation of languages other than English. Of 2,585 federally funded clinical trials, 28.86% (95% CI 27.11%-30.61%; n = 746) required English language proficiency and 4.68% (95% CI 3.87%-5.50%; n = 121) specified accommodation of other languages; of the 5,286 industry-funded trials, 5.30% (95% CI 4.69%-5.90%; n = 280) required English and 0.49% (95% CI 0.30%-0.69%; n = 26) accommodated other languages. Trials related to infectious disease were less likely to specify an English requirement than all registered trials (10.07% versus 18.98%; relative risk [RR] = 0.53; 95% CI 0.44-0.64; p < 0.001). Trials related to COVID-19 were also less likely to specify an English requirement than all registered trials (8.18% versus 18.98%; RR = 0.43; 95% CI 0.33-0.56; p < 0.001). Trials with a posted protocol (n = 366) were more likely than all registered clinical trials to specify an English requirement (36.89% versus 18.98%; RR = 1.94, 95% CI 1.69-2.23; p < 0.001). A separate analysis of studies with posted protocols in 4 therapeutic areas (depression, diabetes, breast cancer, and prostate cancer) demonstrated that clinical trials related to depression were the most likely to require English (52.24%; 95% CI 40.28%-64.20%). One limitation of this study is that the computer program only searched for the terms "English" and "Spanish" and may have missed evidence of other language accommodations. Another limitation is that we did not differentiate between requirements to read English, speak English, understand English, and be a native English speaker; we grouped these requirements together in the category of English language requirements.

Conclusions: A meaningful percentage of US interventional clinical trials for adults exclude individuals who cannot read, speak, and/or understand English, or are not native English speakers. To advance more inclusive and generalizable research, funders, sponsors, institutions, investigators, institutional review boards, and others should prioritize translating study materials and eliminate language requirements unless justified either scientifically or ethically.

Grant support

The authors received no specific funding for this work.