Science’s Exclusionary Language: Why Jargon May Be Driving Away Your Audience

By Stephanie Paoli

Do we (scientists, students, and writers) use jargon to sound smart rather than inform? 

Photo by Vanessa Garcia on Pexels.com

Science Is Getting More Specialized And Complex

Science is complicated. It’s always been complicated—this isn’t news to anyone. Research shows that scientists are using more complicated language in science articles over the last 25 years. This could, in part, be due to increasing specialization within the sciences. Proteomics, genomics, all the other -omics; these are subfields within subfields of science and engineering that didn’t exist 25 years ago. Sure, new discoveries warrant new words, but that shouldn’t mean that science literacy gets further and further out of reach for the average citizen. Yes, science is complicated, but science writing doesn’t need to be.  

“Science is complicated, but science writing doesn’t need to be.” —@S_A_Paoli

Take the following excerpt for example from the journal Aging Clinical and Experimental Research:

Occlusive phenomena of intravascular coagulation are expected to be more evident in smaller vascular districts. In this scenario, ophthalmological assessment is particularly important to evaluate the degree of impairment of retinal vascularization in COVID-19 survivors. Indeed, the ophthalmologist will evaluate possible damages that COVID-19 infection may have inflicted to the retina. It will be important to correlate the degree of retinal impairment with cerebrovascular and/or cognitive impairment.

Now try reading this version that I came up with:

Damage due to blood clots is easier to see in small blood vessels, such as those found in the retina. It is therefore important for COVID-19 survivors to have these tissues examined by an eye doctor. Studying retinal damage might also provide clues about injury to other, harder-to-examine, small blood vessels, such as those in the brain. 

The second iteration of this text conveys the same information, but in simpler language. I often find myself thinking, “You didn’t need to say it like that, so why did you?” Why do we insist on saying “Occlusive phenomena of intravascular coagulation” when we could just as easily say, “Blot clots block blood vessels”?

Or take a look at this xkcd comic, which explains the basic mechanics of a space shuttle in decidedly NOT complicated language. 

Science Jargon A Form of Gatekeeping?

Robert Fisk has put forth a different explanation for our jargon use: gatekeeping. Gatekeeping refers to the practice of restricting access to something, usually information or membership to a cultural group, to draw a strict line between the in-group and out-group. 

As Robert Fisk writes, “Keep Out, these words say to us. This Is Something You Are Not Clever Enough to Understand.”  

Fisk argues that this type of language use creates a litmus test of sorts. Being able to use and understand this language shows that someone is “worthy” of joining the high-flying world of traditional journalism. Since young scholars are under tremendous pressure to prove themselves, they start using this language in their writing as well—often despite their better judgement.

When young scholars start out, they cannot ignore these established practices. To be accepted and recognized as full-fledged members within the community, they have to demonstrate, usually through their writings, that they have learnt and understood these conventions.

Singapore National Institute of Education

What does this mean for scientists trying to communicate to a larger audience? It means you have to think from your audience’s perspective. There is a difference between simplifying for the sake of clarity and ‘dumbing something down’. In a medical journal, it would be appropriate to say “end to end anastomosis” rather than “take the bad part out and sew the loose ends together”. Jargon has its uses. But using jargon for the sake of “science street cred” does a disservice to your reader.  As SciCommers, we have to walk a fine line between being scientifically rigorous and easy-to-understand.

We scientists use a lot of jargon, but we don’t have to. Here are a few tips to reduce the use of jargon in your scientific writing:

  1. Make sure to explain any jargon the first time you mention it. This includes spelling out all acronyms.
  2. Don’t add extraneous jargon. Make all jargon serve a purpose.
  3. Avoid passive voice.
  4. Keep it simple. Explain things in the simplest terms, without losing clarity. No need to say ‘occlusive phenomena’ when you can just say ‘blocked.’
  5. Don’t talk down to your reader. This makes your writing less impactful and less effective.

Avoiding jargon in science writing helps improve science communication. Without complex language, science writing becomes more understandable — and therefore more inclusive.

Stephanie Paoli is a freelance science writer and a graduate student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where she studies neuroscience. When she’s not in the lab, you can find her on the ski trails near her home in Trondheim, Norway. Or on the couch, trying to read Harry Potter in Norwegian. Visit Stephanie’s website at stephpaoli.ca or follow her on Twitter at @S_A_Paoli.

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