It's Getting More Difficult to Read Science Papers

Researchers: It's because of technical jargon, also regular old jargon
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 3, 2017 3:19 PM CDT
It's Getting More Difficult to Read Science Papers
Does not compute.   (Getty Images/Marco Rosario Venturini Autieri)

Put off by the high-level mumbo-jumbo that proliferates in science journals? You're not alone, Swedish researchers have found. In a study published in the preprint server bioRxiv, William Hedley Thompson and his Karolinska Institute team checked out more than 700,000 English-language abstracts from nearly 125 biomedical journals from 1881 to 2015 and discovered technical jargon has been on the upswing—but it's not just profession-tied vernacular sneaking into the text. The researchers also found an uptick in "general scientific jargon," or longer words that aren't necessarily of scientific origin (e.g., "furthermore") that keep turning up in science papers and muddling comprehension. Per Science Alert, the researchers held the abstracts up to two readability yardsticks that looked at how many syllables words had, sentence length, and reader familiarity with the language.

What they found, from 1881 onward, is that readability has declined steadily over the years, results they call "concerning" considering it means scientific findings are less accessible. But Philip Ball, writing for Nature, points out issues with the study, noting that the readability gauges used common words measured against US fourth-graders' comprehension, not that of adults; that some of the earlier data (pre-1960) may not have been terribly reliable; and that technical jargon isn't inherently bad if it eventually places more scientific words in our everyday vocabulary. What Ball thinks could help: researchers being exposed to more good writing that would inform their own documentation and make it clearer for readers. "Why not encourage students to put down Nature and pick up Darwin, Dawkins, or Dickens?" he asks. (UK bureaucrats were told to drop the jargon a few years back.)

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