Scientific writing has been infected by the jargon virus

Helena HennoApr 4, 2017

Lengthy sentences, complicated words, weird abbreviations—scientific papers are not known for their reader-friendliness. When trying to tackle such a paper, you often blame yourself for having to read the same sentence twice, or more, to fully understand it. You may think it’s because of your own lack of knowledge or poor concentration. Next time, you can ease up with the self-accusations, because scientific texts have indeed become harder to read.

Based on an analysis of more than 700,000 biomedical abstracts published from 1881–2015, a recent study by researchers from Karolinska Institute shows that the readability of scientific texts has decreased over time.

Part of this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that technical vocabulary is expanding as knowledge accumulates and new field-specific concepts appear.

However, the authors of the study discovered that the use of general scientific jargon is also on the rise. This would include words like ‘robust’, ‘significant’, ‘furthermore’, ‘novel’, and ‘underlying’.

Let’s admit it, we all use these words to make our texts sound more scientific. Especially for a non-native writer, instead of keeping it simple, it feels more credible to mimic the complex and jargon-rich English filling most scientific journals today.

As a result, the use of the general scientific jargon has become a self-reinforcing loop.

The replicating jargon virus presents a serious threat to the impact of scientific findings, mainly for two reasons. First, poor readability makes scientific experiments much more difficult to reproduce, thus making results practically impossible to validate. Second, it jeopardizes the role of science as a basis for decision-making. If even a fellow scientist finds a paper difficult to understand, you are sure to discourage the general public from trying. With poor and complicated science communication, even the finest research work can be left unused.

Luckily, there are some simple ways to vaccinate your keyboard against the jargon virus:

    1. Try reading a novel for a change. As science writer Philip Ball suggests in his column in Nature, ”sophisticated readers make sophisticated writers”. He encourages scientists to occasionally take a look outside the scientific literature to find examples of good writing.
    2. Keep it simple. It’s not all about jargon—the clarity of scientific texts can also be improved by writing short and well-constructed sentences. As someone wise said, “Hate the comma, love the period”.
    3. Mind the gaps. Finally, Ball calls for step-by-step reasoning instead of leaving gaps in the logical flow of your story. If you want to prevent your readers from falling into these gaps, fill them in!

And then there’s the fourth and final option: get professional help. There are people who specialize in clear and understandable science communication, so why not use them?

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Helena Henno

Helena Henno
Inspired by problem solving and learning new things, Helena is always on the lookout for innovative ways to combine her two passions: medical science and business. As a creative extrovert known for her ever-positive attitude, Helena also enjoys ideation, brainstorming, and big-picture thinking. When not at work, Helena divides her time between cooking, various forms of sport, as well as different networking activities.