Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists
Polje, blanket, vuggy, psammit. Some scientists studying caves may not turn a blind eye, but for the rest of us these terms might as well be ancient Greek.
The technical terminology does not only apply to the ivory tower. For example, ask a baker about torture or an arborist about bracts. But it’s ubiquitous in science, and now a team of researchers has analyzed the jargon in a number of over 21,000 scientific manuscripts. They found that articles with higher jargon percentages in their titles and abstracts were cited less frequently by other researchers. Science communication – with the public, but also among scientists – suffers when a research report is filled with too much specialist terminology, the team concluded.
These results were published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Wednesday.
Jargon can be a problem, but it also serves a purpose, said Hillary Shulman, a communications scientist at Ohio State University. “When our ideas are refined, it makes sense for our concepts to do the same.” This language within a language can be a time saver, a way to convey meaning precisely, she said. However, there is also a danger that people – even some well-trained researchers – will be strongly reminded that they do not “know about”.
“It’s alienating,” said Dr. Shulman.
Two scientists recently investigated how the use of jargon affects the likelihood of a manuscript being cited in other scientific journal articles. Such quotes are an acknowledgment of the importance and relevance of a study and are used to estimate a researcher’s productivity.
Alejandro Martínez, an evolutionary biologist, and Stefano Mammola, an ecologist, both with the National Research Council in Pallanza, Italy, first collected scientific papers. Using the Web of Science, an online platform that gives subscribers access to databases of scientific publications, they found 21,486 manuscripts focusing on caving.
Speleology is a particularly colloquial field, said Dr. Martínez. That’s because it attracts a diverse pool of researchers, each with their own terminology. Anthropologists, geologists, zoologists, and ecologists meet in caves, he said. “They like the rocks or the bugs or the human remains or the murals.”
To compile a list of cave-related jargon words, Dr. Martínez performed the glossaries of cave books and survey studies. He settled on roughly 1,500 terms (including the four that appear at the beginning of this article).
Dr. Mammola then wrote a computer program to calculate the proportion of slang words in the title and abstract of each manuscript. Papers with a higher jargon content received fewer citations, the researchers found. And none of the most cited publications – with more than 450 citations – used jargon in their title, while almost all included abstracts where less than 1 percent of the words were jargon.
Since quotations are often viewed as a measure of academic success, jargon negatively affects a job, Dr. Martínez and Dr. Mammola before. Fewer citations can mean an article will not be read and remembered, which is overall bad news for science communication, the team concluded.
However, other researchers have found that using less common words – a form of jargon – can be beneficial. David Markowitz, a psychology researcher at the University of Oregon, analyzed the abstracts of nearly 20,000 funding proposals from the National Science Foundation. His results, published in 2019, showed that abstracts containing less common words tended to receive more grants. “Jargon isn’t always associated with negative outcomes,” said Dr. Markowitz.
But clear communication should always be a goal in science, said Sabine Stanley, planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s important to take a step back and always remember as a scientist: How do I describe to someone who doesn’t do this 24/7, what I do, what I do?”
Dr. Stanley recently participated in the Up-Goer Five Challenge at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting. Inspired by an xkcd comic that explains in plain language the Saturn V rocket by Randall Munroe (an occasional Times post), the event encourages attendees to communicate their science using only the thousand most common words in English (a text editor is available). .
“It’s pretty challenging,” said Dr. Stanley, who presented new results from the Mars InSight Lander.
The title of your talk? “A space computer named within sight landed in the Red World last year, and here’s what we’ve found so far.”