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Words matter: jargon alienates readers

Non-scientists feel shut out and confused by articles that use technical language — even if it’s defined.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Alphabet soup letters in a bowl spell out "remote ergonomic console"

Adapted from Getty

Overly technical language in science articles doesn’t just muddy the waters for non-experts — it can alienate readers, potentially shutting them out from scientific discussion and knowledge. That’s the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology1, and it applies to general-interest articles just as much as to scientific papers.

“When we have a hard time conceptualizing information, we become really scared of it,” says lead author Hillary Shulman, a communication researcher at the Ohio State University in Columbus. Scientists “are creating unnecessary barriers with the words they choose”, she says.

The study involved 650 members of the general public who read paragraphs on three technical topics: self-driving cars, robotic surgery and 3D bio-printing. The paragraphs were either laden with jargon terms, such as “remote ergonomic console”, or written with words that are familiar to most readers, such as “separate control panel”. Shulman and her co-authors wrote the texts using jargon terms gathered from articles and websites aimed at all readers, not from scientific journals or technical manuals.

After reading the passages, the study participants rated their experience in a series of questionnaires. Those who read jargon-filled paragraphs were more likely to say that they had difficulty understanding the language and the information. They were also significantly more likely to say that they weren’t good at science, and less likely to say that they would seek out information on the topic in the future.

Some of the participants who read the jargon-heavy text received links to definitions of technical terms, but that didn’t reduce their frustrations or enhance their feelings of understanding. “We found that people didn’t use the links,” Shulman says. Instead of trying to define technical language when communicating with non-experts, she says, scientists would do better to avoid any such terms.

Plain and simple

Scientists can learn to cut back their use of technical language when talking to people who are not researchers, says Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, a science-communication researcher at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. In 2017, she helped to develop the De-Jargonizer, an online tool that assesses and scores the accessibility of text2.

Baram-Tsabari also co-authored a January 2020 study in PLoS ONE3 showing that scientists with media training can write articles that are just as engaging as pieces written by professional journalists. “Avoiding jargon is a fundamental part of that, but it’s not the whole story,” she says. To really connect with the public, she recommends that scientists tell a story that’s relevant to the audience.

Members of the general public aren’t the only ones who can be turned off by jargon, Shulman says. Students are vulnerable, too. “I teach a class with 400 undergrads,” she says. “When you’re training people, you can introduce jargon with a little more sensitivity. You’re trying to invite them into the environment.”

Of course, technical words still have an important function in science. Shulman’s paper is itself loaded with terms such as ‘metacognition’ and ‘self-schema’. “The irony of that is not lost on me,” she says. “When it comes to scientific literature, you can’t get anything published unless it’s full of jargon. Scientists want to speak to other scientists in the most precise way possible.”

Baram-Tsabari says that one of her graduate students has gathered anecdotal evidence that some female researchers feel especially pressured to use heavily technical words and phrases in their work and conversations. “They say, ‘People don’t take me seriously because I’m a woman. If I used accessible language, it would be bad for my career.’” Similarly, Shulman has noticed that early-career researchers tend to lean on technical language as a way to show that they truly belong to the scientific community. “I see it a lot in graduate students,” she says.

Nature 579, 309 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00580-w

References

  1. 1.

    Shulman, H. C., Dixon, G. N., Bullock, O. M. & Colón Amill, D. J. Lang. Soc. Psychol. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X20902177 (2020).

  2. 2.

    Rakedzon, T., Segev, E., Chapnik, N., Yosef, R. & Baram-Tsabari, A. PLoS ONE 12, e0181742 (2017).

  3. 3.

    Barel-Ben David, Y., Garty, E. S. & Baram-Tsabari, A. PLoS ONE 15, e0222250 (2020).

Download references

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