Speak human to me, scientist!

maze, complexity

Science language becomes increasingly confusing – what are the implications? science alone can be complex enough. so complex that only the few who work on it understand it. but an unfortunate trend makes scientific writing more and more INCOMPREHENSIBLE. why is this happening and what can be done about it?

The Scientific English

Scientific English is a language on its own. It has its own grammar, vocab, and rules.
Half of the scientific education of young researchers is to learn expressing themselves as their senior peers (anecdotal data). This  “Monkey see, monkey do” approach is actually inadvertently closing a vicious circle of unnecessary over-complexification of the scientific lingo.
Speculations exist, that Scientific English arose as a separator of highly intellectual individuals, from the non-educated “plebs”, giving the scientists the (often) false feeling of superiority.

scientist speaking incomprehensible english
Pic from PhD Comics (click image for larger size; http://phdcomics.com/)

The science of incomprehensible Scientific English

While some scientists are trying to make scientific language more accessible, the trend of over-complexification continues with worrying speed. The journal E-life has recently published an article to show this. You can find the original research, open access, here. I took a swing at drafting a small infographic to summarise the article, although I have to say it was written in a rather accessible language.

What do we mean when we talk Science?

The use of specific terminology is warranted in scientific publications. But over doing it is a big “no go” and is unjustified. Forgetting that science is meant to be read also by other people than the scientists, we often self-isolate ourselves by writing our article in a way that barely anyone outside our filed (and even sometimes in it) can understand what we did or wanted to say. Science is meant to be useful for policy-makers and their advisors, but also for the interested individuals without necessarily having formal scientific education.
The Stroppy Editor has an interesting article on the topic, focusing mostly on medical writing.

At odds with the science communication movement

A special discord is immediately obvious if we consider the increasing over-complexity of scientific writing in the context of the increasing attempts of some scientists to bring science back in the public domain and out of its isolation chamber. 

Science communicators around the world have made their life’s goal to simplify, translate and make scientific research accessible for non-scientists as a way of earning the people’s trust in science and to fight misinformation and pseudoscientific practices. 

When science is misunderstood

The misunderstanding of scientific research brought in the world concepts like:

In many cases, pseudoscience can and has cost the health and life of people. Thus, actively combating the misunderstanding of and mistrust in scientific research is not only professional imperative for all scientists. It is our ethical obligation!

The universe in plain English

Dr Roberto Trotta took this attempt to an extreme. He wrote a book trying to explain the universe using only the most used 1000 words in the English language. I have to admit that I haven’t got the chance to read the book yet, but the average reviews are very positive. And his talk is nothing less than inspiring. 

A problem of international importance (and origin)

One of the reasons why scientific english might be more difficult to comprehend is the fact that it is not a native tongue for anyone. One of my favourite professors Howy Jacobs has written an editorial on that. I had the pleasure to meet him some years ago at a PhD symposium we organised from my grad-school. He is a great example of how science talk can be complex enough to convey the complexity of the subject matter, yet simple enough so people who are not specialists in the topic can still follow and find his science fascinating and its delivery – inclusive.

His editorial (published here in the EMBO journal) uncovers one of the main culprits for science lingo to be so tough to grasp. If noone is ever truly fluent in it, who’s to say what is the exact right way to say something in your scientific article. The international/multicultural nature of scientific teams often means that in labs around the world, the language used will be mixture of the various nations’ understanding and appropriation of English.

Some people still ponder on the question “but why on earth we have to use English for scientific communication, why not French, German or Russian? After all, back in the day so many original articles were published in those languages”. And while I can understand the sentiment, I believe that we are much better off with accepting this as a convenience rather than an imperialistic conspiracy. Trust me – English is much easier than all the three mentioned languages. Instead, maybe we should focus on how to educate scientists to know the difference between necessary complexity and extreme pompousness.

For now, science funders in non-English-speaking countries should consider providing additional resources to equip laboratories with support personnel combining advanced scientific training with fluency in English. Indeed, this could be developed as a specific profession.
Prof. Howy Jacobs
Howy Jacobs
Professor and Director, Institute of Biotechnology University of Helsinki

The people against unnecessary jargon

The miss-trust in science is an increasing problem and there are many reasons for this. Some of them originate in the field itself, others are damage inflicted from anti-science activists. 
The existence of the latter is bad enough and damaging enough for the image and acceptance of science and scientists already. So for us, scientists, it should be even more of a goal to not only carry out credible research, but also to make sure that it is understood correctly by its intended audiences. This includes, even is rooted in, the understandable writing of research and the open access publishing of articles.

pic from equity mates
Pic from Equity Mates

Disclaimer: this blog-post scores as difficult to read, according to one of the methods of assessment used in the quoted E-Life research paper. I am purposefully leaving it like this, to give an indication of how relevant this scale is to you. Here’s the explanation of the scale. This post scores at 47.3.

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