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Even Technical Experts Get Confused by Jargon
If you do any type of technical writing, the following information is a must-read for you. The article, “Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists,” from The New York Times, shows how an overuse of technical terms, even in reports written for a technical audience, may be confusing and, ultimately, go unread. Here is the article, edited for clarity and space:
Polje, nappe, vuggy, psammite. Some scientists who study caves might not bat an eye at these terms, but for the rest of us, they might as well be ancient Greek.
Specialized terminology isn’t unique to the ivory tower—just ask a baker about torting or an arborist about bracts, for example. But it’s pervasive in academia, and now a team of researchers has analyzed jargon in a set of over 21,000 scientific manuscripts. They found that papers containing higher proportions of jargon 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 paper is packed with too much specialized terminology, the team concluded.
Jargon can be a problem, but it also serves a purpose, said Hillary Shulman, a communications scientist at Ohio State University. “As our ideas become more refined, it makes sense that our concepts do too.” This language-within-a-language can be a timesaver, a way to precisely convey meaning, she said. However, it also runs the risk of starkly reminding people—even some well-educated researchers—that they aren’t “in the know.”
“It’s alienating,” said Dr. Shulman.
If Your Scientific Article Isn’t Cited by Others, then You’re Not Relevant
Two scientists recently investigated how the use of jargon affects a manuscript’s likelihood of being cited in other scientific journal articles. Such citations are an acknowledgment of a study’s importance and relevance, and they’re used to estimate a researcher’s productivity. Alejandro Martínez, an evolutionary biologist, and Stefano Mammola, an ecologist, both at the National Research Council in Pallanza, Italy, started by collecting scientific papers. Using the Web of Science, an online platform that allows subscribers to access databases of scholarly publications, they zeroed in on 21,486 manuscripts focused on cave research.
Cave science is a particularly jargon-heavy field, Dr. Martínez said. That’s because it attracts a diverse pool of researchers, each of whom brings their own terminology. Anthropologists, geologists, zoologists and ecologists all end up meeting in caves, he said. “They like the rocks or the bugs or the human remains or the wall paintings.”
To compile a list of cave-related jargon words, Dr. Martínez combed over the glossaries of caving books and review 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 jargon words in each manuscript’s title and abstract. Papers with a higher fraction of jargon received fewer citations, the researchers found. And none of the most highly cited papers—with more than 450 citations—used jargon in their title, while almost all had abstracts where fewer than 1 percent of the words were jargon.
As citations are often viewed as a metric of academic success, jargon has a negative effect on a paper, Dr. Martínez and Dr. Mammola propose. Fewer citations can mean that a paper isn’t getting read and remembered, which is bad news for science communication overall, the team concluded.
Clear Communication Using the 1,000 Most Common Words in the English Language
Other researchers have found, however, that using less-common words—a form of jargon—can be beneficial. David Markowitz, a psychology of language researcher at the University of Oregon, analyzed the abstracts of nearly 20,000 proposals for funding from the National Science Foundation. His results, published in 2019, revealed that abstracts that contained fewer common words tended to garner more grant funding. “Jargon doesn’t always associate with negative outcomes,” Dr. Markowitz said.
But clear communication should always be a goal in science, said Sabine Stanley, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s important to step back and always remind yourself as a scientist: how do I describe what I’m doing to someone who is not doing this 24/7 like I am?” Dr. Stanley recently participated in the Up-Goer Five Challenge at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Inspired by an xkcd comic explaining the Saturn V rocket in plain language, the event challenges participants to communicate their science using only the one thousand most-common words in the English language.
“It’s quite challenging,” said Dr. Stanley, who presented new results from the Mars InSight lander using only the thousand most-common words. The title of her talk? “A Space Computer Named In Sight Landed on the Red World Last Year and Here Is What We Found So Far.”
- Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers died between both sides. In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their fallen soldiers from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. This ritual spread around the country, and Waterloo, New York, which began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866, later won congressional recognition as the “Birthplace of Memorial Day.”
- The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. The name “Memorial Day” goes back to 1882, but the older name didn’t disappear until after World War II. It wasn’t until 1967 that federal law declared “Memorial Day” the official name.
- On May 5, 1868, General Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order which set aside May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act shifted Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
- In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause on Memorial Day for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. “is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday.”
- The tradition of celebrating Memorial Day by holding a BBQ with family and friends began with: 1) President Franklin Delano Roosevelt holding a BBQ at the White House on the holiday, 2) having picnic lunches at cemeteries on the graves of fallen soldiers, 3) meat producers lowering their prices each year in honor of Memorial Day, 4) a letter-writing campaign started by the 12-year-old daughter of a Kansas farmer.
(Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
fatuous | FATCH-oo-us | adjective
• complacently or inanely foolish; silly
“Keith was of the fatuous opinion that sales could grow 100 percent by increasing ad buys by only 5 percent.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here to see a list of the 50 most underrated movies on Netflix.
Click here to try your hand at writing anything—from a simple email to a complex technical document—using only the 1,000 most commonly used English words. Click on the “Up-Goer Five Text Editor” link in the second paragraph of this article and start writing. The text editor will identify words that are not on the list of 1,000.
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Choose the word that, when inserted in the sentence, best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
Scientists have discovered that our sense of smell is surprisingly ______, capable of distinguishing thousands of chemical odors.
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
A classic martini is a cocktail consisting of gin (or vodka) and dry vermouth garnished with an olive. However, the original name for the drink is the Martinez, and the concoction was different from the drink we know today. The name first appears in O. H. Byron’s 1884 The Modern Bartender’s Guide:
1 pony French vermouth.
½ pony whisky.
3 or 4 dashes Angostura bitters.
3 dashes gum syrup.
Same as the Manhattan, only you substitute gin for whisky.
The name comes from the town of Martinez, California, located near Oakland, where the drink was invented in the 1860s. The shortening to martini is probably due to the drink’s association with Martini and Rossi-brand vermouth. The clipped form, martini, is in place by 1887, when it appears in the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 30, 1887.
Answer: Keen. One of the meanings of keen is “acutely sensitive.” Therefore, if our sense of smell is keen or “acutely sensitive,” it is capable of “distinguishing thousands of chemical odors.”
Fun Facts Answer
The tradition of commemorating Memorial Day with a BBQ began with having picnic lunches at cemeteries on the graves of fallen soldiers.