Protasov AN/Shutterstock

It's Not Just You - Scientific Research Is Now Harder to Read Than Ever Before

So. much. jargon.

MIKE MCRAE
3 APR 2017
 

If you've been keeping up with the latest in science news, you might have read a few weeks ago that gene and seizure interactions in something called VTA glutamatergic neurons impair sociability by downregulating Cbln1 - a key node in the expanding protein interaction network of autism genes.

Have we lost you? Don't feel too bad. Unless you're well-versed in genetics and neurology, you probably re-read that sentence a few times before moving on - a feature of science papers that, according to new research, has been slowly getting worse.

 

It's not just jargon that has become increasingly dense over the past century, according to a team of neuroscientists from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, but the language of science itself has also become more taxing to decipher.

To test whether published research has become harder to read over time, the researchers downloaded 707,452 biomedical articles from 122 journals in the science database PubMed, all produced between 1881 and 2015.

The papers' abstracts were then analysed according to two measures of readability:

Readability tests such as these are often used to determine whether a text is appropriate for children and young adults at a particular stage of learning, with levels fine-tuned to match a grade or year level in the US.

Based on an average of annual scores, the researchers identified a steady decline in the readability of the abstracts in scientific papers over the past century, finding that more than 26 percent of the texts they analysed required a college graduate (tertiary) level of English to comprehend, up from about 16 percent in 1960.

This rise represented not only more field-specific jargon, such as the aforementioned "VTA glutamatergic neurons", but an increase in what the researchers called in-group scientific language, or 'science-ese' - words such as "robust", "underlying", or "furthermore".

 

Of course, one explanation for why science is getting harder to read could be that science itself is becoming more complex, requiring new words to describe more specific concepts.

But if that were that simple, the researchers would expect the jargon and science-ese to be more diverse than what they found, which suggests something else is going on.

The research has so far only analysed one field – biomedicine – and the results have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, so we can't read too much into them just yet. But if they can be replicated with further research, the study could hint at an underlying 'tribalism' that is making science less accessible to the wider community.

On its own, jargon and 'in-group' language can be useful, speeding up communication and reducing the risk of misunderstanding.

But jargon can also have a habit of making it harder for outsiders to understand a piece of writing, and also act as a way to identify and control who is part of a community and who is not.

Not that it's the general public alone or those outside of a field who could benefit from more plain-speaking science – the researchers point out that scientists who rewrite their abstracts for a lay audience are better able to comprehend their own work.

They also suggest that writing more plainly could help address science's reproducibility crisis by improving the communication of the methods of previous studies.

As science writer Philip Ball points out in a column in Nature, one thing to keep in mind here is that tests designed to evaluate the reading levels of pre-teen US school children might not clearly lend themselves to testing scientific literature.

But he added his own observation – not only is readability about the words in the story; it's about the words that are missing.

"As a regular reader of research papers, I am often staggered by their leaps of reasoning or omission of key details, especially when I discover that these gaps are no less real to experts," Ball writes.

He also suggests that papers could be improved by scientists learning to look outside of their field to find good role models.

"Why not encourage students to put down Nature and pick up Darwin, Dawkins or Dickens?" suggests Ball.

Good science can be held back without good communication, so taking a page from their favourite writer's book is something all scientists – and science writers – could certainly benefit from.

This research was published on the pre-print website bioRxiv.

More From ScienceAlert

12 unhealthy foods that doctors steer clear of

This list might be easier said than done.

10 hours ago