Mind your technical language and write more clearly

Specialist language in scientific literature can put people off. Doctoral candidate Michelle Reeve asks: is it really necessary?

May 11, 2016
Woman reading with letters emerging from the book
Source: iStock

Lately I’ve been doing some more reading around my thesis subject in preparation for writing up. I’ve been making notes from textbooks, casting my eyes over topic reviews and poring over original research papers.

As I covered a subject related to my thesis, but unfamiliar to me, I suddenly realised how often I was stopping to look up the meaning of particular words or phrases. Every time I did so I’d have to go back and reread the sentence or paragraph; it wasted a lot of time.

I’ve started to wonder how necessary this technical language really is. To me, it often feels a like a hang-up from the “Days of Science Past”, when there was a huge divide between the educated upper classes and the typically uneducated working classes. The only people who would read these technical writings were the educated, and it almost seemed like a competition to see who could write the most jargon-filled paper (at least, that’s how I feel when I read old research papers).

In addition, there seemed to be the attitude that if you didn’t understand something, you weren’t smart enough to be reading it, anyway.

Read more: 10 tips for writing a PhD thesis

Today though, scientists, and specialists of all kinds, are much closer to the general public. You don’t have to be a scientist to read original research. You don’t have to have a degree in physics to be interested in what’s going on at the Large Hadron Collider. You don’t have to be doing a PhD in cell biology to want to understand the basic principles of embryonic stem cell research. Science and society overlaps so much these days.

And that’s my point – why is science still using such technical language and alienating people who don’t understand it, when so many more people want to and can understand? Hell, I felt alienated reading about a subject related to my own PhD thesis, because I didn’t understand half the words.

Now, I understand that in some contexts, for example in the interests of brevity and accuracy, technical language is useful for getting to the point quickly. I understand that specialist journals are just that, and they’re likely to be read only by people familiar with that subject.

But what about papers in journals that cover everything and anything in a broad subject, eg, biology? Not every biologist is a neurologist or a muscle physiologist or a geneticist. We don’t all know the “common” technical language for every field. I feel that the biggest journals, such as Nature and Science, are a bit better at avoiding jargon (although occasionally some pretty rubbish science gets in), probably because they know that their audience is incredibly broad, catering for scientists, journalists, the general public and beyond.

I’m just wondering if it’s time for us to reassess the purpose and readership of some of these journals and textbooks.

You can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to be accessed by a wider scope of people than it was, say, half a century ago. So isn’t it about time that we update our language to accommodate this? Particularly in instances when you can easily replace the technical word or jargon-filled phrase with common language of a similar length (I found this was the case A LOT when I was looking stuff up recently; it was very frustrating).

Read more: Ignore the rules on writing to get citations

This is what I intend to do when it comes to writing up my thesis. Originally, I thought that I’d do the “official” version for my examiners and university, full of all the technical terms one might expect, and then do a “simplified” version for myself to keep, and for friends, family and the internet (if anyone is remotely interested in reading it). And then I thought: why? Not only is that duplicating the work for myself, but why shouldn’t a PhD thesis be accessible to everyone? So that’s what I’m going to do.

I’m going to make my thesis as readable as possible, for anyone. Of course there will be things such as statistical tests where I’ll have to just write the name of the test I use rather than explaining how it works in a billion words, but, where possible, I’d like to make it simple.

I’d like to make a plea for future (and current) researchers to bear the non-specialists in mind when they write things up. We all like using big words when we know what they mean, because it makes us feel smart (I definitely do this) but surely it’s preferable that more people understand what you’ve spent the time and effort writing?

In this post, I’ve really just been airing my thoughts on this matter, but I’d love to hear what other people think about this topic – do you think academic texts should be jargon-free? Do you think there’s a time and place that we should use jargon? Comment below or tweet me.

Michelle Reeve is a final year Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council PhD student in spider locomotion at the Royal Veterinary College and University College London. This article originally appeared on her blog.

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