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Science Should Be Readable

By Sophia Yu

Once, over a span of a few days, it took me 12 hours to read a 14-page biochemical research paper. These numbers amount to an impressive average reading pace of 51 minutes- per-page, and by the end of the article I doubted not only my ability to read, but my ability to professionally succeed in STEM. Of course, the problem in this case was not my academic competency, my literacy level, or even my interest in science. My disheartening struggle could not even be fully attributed to the content of the paper either; after understanding them, I found the methods in the article thoughtful and fascinating. Rather, I, like so many South- Campus-majoring undergrads, fell victim to a common obstacle existing in almost every piece of scientific literature: a black hole of overwhelming language and terminology.

Jargon refers to the technical words, terms, and phrases composing the vocabulary of aspecialized field. In science, there is a distinction between jargon and technical terms; jargon terms are considered to have plain language equivalents while technical terms do not and are therefore necessary. This distinction is subjective and audience-dependent, andfor many people, most scientific terms are interpreted as jargon rather than technical. Sincenew scientific discoveries are constantly being made, technical language is often invented to name new phenomena, processes, and methods in research. Terms like “In vitro”, “Metacognition,” and “Western blot”, for instance, are all examples of scientific language,and possibly jargon. This adaptive nature of technical terminology prompts many to view it as a linguistic reflection of progress and discovery in science. By allowing experts to communicate concisely, technical language indeed plays an important role in the collaborative and cumulative nature of research within a discipline. However, the audience of much research — and ideally all science — is broad, and some studies, like those pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic for example, should be accessible to the general public. Misleading and excessively long jargon can have dangerous impacts on the publiclyperceived significance of research as a whole.

Excessive scientific jargon alienates readers. Research embodies the ingenious creativity in science, but individual labs will always be the principal experts of their own work. As a result, even other experts within a field can have difficulty understanding their colleagues. For typical high- school or undergraduate students, easy comprehension of these articles can be impossible. This inaccessibility has wide-reaching implications for science as a field.For one, jargon can discourage public interest in science. Professor Hillary Shulman from Ohio State University conducted a study earlier this year aimed at understanding the effects of jargon on the general public’s reaction to scientific developments. She exposed two groups of people to the same scientific findings, with one group receiving an article filledwith technical terminology. The jargon-exposed group was not only found to be less interested in the same findings, but was far more likely to feel unqualified and uninformed in the field of science as a whole. “The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” says Shulman. More dangerously, a study with the same participants in the journal Public Understanding of Science found that jargon-filled writing can actually lead people to doubt scientific findings. For controversial topics like climate change, vaccines, and public COVID-19 procedure, widespread distrust of science is especially problematic.

Excessive scientific jargon can also alienate scientists. Disappointingly — but unsurprisingly — women, people of color, and those from low- income backgrounds continue to be the most underrepresented in science. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation, women of color are only employed in 10 percent of all science and/ or engineering occupational positions as of 2015. Expectantly, underrepresented groups tend to have a weakened sense of belonging in research and often feel the need to “prove themselves” as competent scientists to their peers. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, a researcher at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, discusses how this can manifest in scientific language, explaining how female researchers feel more pressure to communicate “technically” than their male counterparts. She echoes a few of these women: “‘People don’t take me seriously because I’m a woman. If I used accessible language, it would be bad for my career.’”

Eliminating technical language from every field of scientific research is neither a practical nor helpful way to address the inaccessibility brought on by excessive jargon. Instead, a possible solution is changing how we educate future scientists to reflect a greater emphasis on communication. Majoring in STEM is not an excuse for poor writing; yet, it tends to be the South Campus majors who dread writing essays and reading books. Besides the fact that reading and writing are important skills in any professional field, encouraging STEM students to improve their writing would alleviate the problems caused by excessive jargon. For example, one important aspect of writing is knowing one’s audience; scientists can apply this skill when deciding how to incorporate jargon in their articles. Enforcing higher writing standards may also alleviate the pressure on underrepresented groups to use excessive technical language by emphasizing the greater importance of clarity in writing over complicated jargon. Increased focus on communication could improve the accuracy ofscientific findings in the media too. An article in Plos ONE, coauthored by Baram-Tsabari, suggests that scientists who have media experience are actually able to present science stories in a manner just as readable and engaging as content produced by professional journalists. Having more scientist-reported science media would serve to maintain or even increase public interest in science while minimizing inaccuracies and “fake news.” This journalistic shift would also lessen the need for external journalists and writers who are not professionally trained in specialized scientific fields, ensuring the most direct path for scientific research to the public.

Though far from perfect, scientific research is an increasingly interdisciplinary field, and nothing exhibits that more clearly than the increasingly diverse pool of early- career scientists in our generation. This is why emphasizing internal and external communication in science is especially important. While scientific jargon and language are efficient tools for internal communication within a discipline, in excess they can serve to alienate external readers and delegitimize other scientists. As students, we must practice our ability to communicate dynamically — knowing when to incorporate jargon and when to not — at risk of further alienating science from the general public. After all, the revolutionary breakthroughs of our generation’s scientists won’t be revolutionary if no one can understand them.

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