Breaking down jargon to rebuild trust
Jargon. We encounter it daily and, depressingly, recent research has shown its use is increasing in academic literature.1 Using two different measures of readability, a statistical analysis of over 700,000 abstracts from a range of disciplines published from 1881 to 2015 found that scientific articles are getting less readable – and more jargon filled.
Of course, finding jargon in a research paper isn’t surprising; it does have a role in assisting specialised communication. But while jargon can make communication between experts more efficient, it can render it utterly ineffective for everyone else. You might not be concerned if scientific papers are inaccessible to the layman but there’s more at stake. At a time when we are supposedly post-truth and seemingly pre-apocalyptic, the importance of saying what you mean and meaning what you say has never been greater. I’m worried that we are further isolating people from evidence-based debate by building a wall of words that obfuscates what we really mean, and what really matters. We have a duty to those that seek evidence to make it easy for them to grasp.
An MIT Sloan Research Paper showed that Wikipedia – enormously popular but rarely cited – is shaping the language that researchers use in papers.2 Ideas, words and phrases that are incorporated into Wikipedia articles subsequently appear more often in scientific literature. The authors go on to suggest that ‘increased provision of information in accessible repositories is a cost-effective way to advance science’ – that will work far better if the pages speak plainly. Wikipedia entries are easy to find and totally free: the barrier to knowledge isn’t access, it’s accessibility. We need both if we want a more scientifically literate (or considerate) discourse and scientists, who wield little power over publishers’ business models, can still influence the latter.
The importance of context and weight of evidence needs more airtime as well. Nearly 20 years ago a Wellcome Trust report found that ‘greater understanding of the scientific process […] should prevent science and scientists being dismissed as confused or confusing’ by the public.3 If we agree with Nasa that 97% of scientists engaged in climate research are confident that human activities are behind global warming4 then the other 3% must be doing a lot of interviews to sustain the ‘debate’ about climate change.
There has always existed a worrying habit of demonstrating how important something is through high-minded, purple prose. Or in the case of scientific papers, the passive impersonal style adopted to give the appearance of objectivity and deploying adjectives like ‘robust’, a word that has seen a stark increase in use over the years.1 I’ve seen CVs that waxed lyrical about ‘socialising with friends’ or ‘managing beverage requirements via reactive methodologies’. We’ve all written lofty sentences or highfalutin prose and we’ve all derided others for doing the same.
I understand the need for scholarly communication, dialogue between experts, and the complex vocabularies and expressions they entail. But, through all of this, let us remember that we should be able to explain the biggest of ideas with small words and modest intent. The scientific community needs to be as open and as inclusive as possible. If we let jargon get the better of us we harm progress, muddy debate and make our ideas and intentions opaque.
So, let’s all find the bandwidth to action a stepladder strategy toward a new paradigm of customer-facing dialogue and disintermediate the jargon going forward. It’s a win/win.