“The phosopholipid bilayer allows for bidirectional transport of cellular metabolites via membrane pores and transmembrane proteins.” (Source: Thompson Writing Program, Duke University)
You may as well be reading another language, but these are real words in English. Probably not the kind of English you use every day. This appears to be the kind of language that’s only accessible to those ‘in the know,’ which in this case would be cellular biologists. This is all good and well if you’re speaking to only cellular biologists, but what if you’re trying to speak to a general audience? You don’t want to dumb it down for them or anything, which means you’re either condescending to them, or you might omit some really important concepts that reveal the complexity and importance of your work, or both. However, if this is the only way one communicates – with the complex language made for a limited audience – their research, then it almost seems that science is a highly exclusive enterprise.
Scientists have been grappling with the issue of communication for quite a while, and there is a wealth of research in science education (which I’m also going to participate in during my new professorship – this is as close to a plug as I’m able to do) regarding how communication can affect learning in the sciences. However, there’s also the problem within the scientific community – journal articles can become heavily laden with specialized language, and it becomes hard to read, even for other scientists. Novice researchers would spend too much time in hospital due to constant head-desking.
I’m kidding! Probably!
Should this really that big of a concern for scientists, though? Plavén-Sigray et al. released a study to find out if scientific journal articles have indeed become less readable over time. If one would indeed make any claims about the readability of scientific articles, one better have a large enough sample. The authors sure did – “…707,452 scientific abstracts published between 1881 and 2015 from 122 influential biomedical journals.” The journals included Nature, Science, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the New England Journal of Medicine – and those are the more famous ones. However, your claims are only as good as your methods, and finding a large enough sample is just one aspect of the methods. You still have to have a reliable instrument. They used two: the Flesch Reading Ease (from now on, FRE), and the New Dale-Chall Readability Formula (from now on, NDC). These measure readability using things like syllables per word, words per sentence, and/or ‘difficult words’ (or at least not common ones).
Have the abstracts of scientific articles become more difficult to read? According to the authors, the short answer is yes. The FRE of articles seemed to trend downward, while NDC is trending upward over the years – the words are getting longer, the sentences are getting longer, and more ‘difficult words’ are showing up. I should remind you that those are just the abstracts, but how about the full articles themselves? Surely it may be easier to wade through since there’s a lot more room to write than the abstracts, right? You’ve seen what I’m talking about if you’ve been clicking the links for the Featured Articles over these few months (you have, haven’t you?), especially the open-access (FREE!) ones. It’s not much better – they found a pretty tight correlation between the readability of the abstract and the readability of the full article. So, if abstracts have become less readable over the years, so goes the articles themselves. And don’t we researchers know it – just check into any coffee shop near any university. You’ll see, but please resist unleashing your inner David Attenborough when encountering them.
The authors offer two hypotheses that they wanted to test (a hypothesis has to be testable, otherwise you’re just guessing), and they did:
- Increase in number of co-authors. If you’ve clicked on some of the Featured Articles, especially for anything from Science, ten authors isn’t uncommon. Some statistical work-up done, and they found that more authors decreased the readability of abstracts (‘too many cooks’ and all that), but it seemed that it was going to decrease no matter what as time went by. They didn’t test any relationships between number of co-authors and the publishing date, but there’s a danger in data mining for relationships that don’t really make sense.
- Increase in scientific jargon. New words can be made up in the sciences, particularly since a lot of them (medicine in particular) are combinations of Greek or Roman fragments, with the occasional German word thrown in probably because it can capture a phrase in one word. They found that there has been an increase in what they called ‘general scientific jargon,’ which was essentially their filtered version of the ‘difficult word’ list. These words don’t even seem all that complicated – they include words like novel, robust, underlying, and furthermore.
The authors also suggest that as the knowledge grows, so goes the scientific vocabulary. Can’t test it, though.
So what’s the take-home from this study? It’s getting harder to read science, at this point probably harder than doing science. And as I’ve mentioned before, one of my personal beliefs is that science not communicated is science not carried out. You know what, hang on a moment…
If we in the scientific community hope to get the public not just to notice our work but also to join in the greater conversations that affect all of our lives, whether it’s research into new materials or finding markers to help with diagnosing cancer, then we must be able to communicate not just our research, but our science, to the public. We cannot assume that they are not interested – more may be interested than given credit for, if nothing else because they want to know what their taxes are funding, as our research is often funded by the public to some degree. In addition, we cannot assume that they are ignorant of science. I believe that the public has some knowledge of the sciences – varying degrees though they may be – that may be hidden by a weak grasp of the specialized language that we scientists use. We may be scientists, but science does not belong to us alone. Science is a purely human endeavor, and it belongs to all people, although we have been entrusted through our education and by our research institutions to advance it for the benefit of mankind. Thus, it is imperative that we share the fruits of our labor with all mankind, not just through tangible results with consumer benefits, but through effective communication. In doing so, we can advance science by advancing mankind, just as advancing science advances mankind. We live lives of curiosity, but I would like to close with an admonition by quoting Hollywood producer Brian Grazer:
“Curiosity is great, but if what we learn evaporates, if it goes no further than our own experience, then it doesn’t really help us. Curiosity itself is essential to survival. But the power of human development comes from being able to share what we learn, and to accumulate it.” (Grazer, 2015, p. 82)
(Postscript: Do they even make soap boxes anymore? Should I have been standing on a top of a box of hand sanitizers? Could those hold up a 155-pound person?)
Featured Article: Plavén-Sigray P, Matheson GJ, Schiffler BC, Thompson WH (2017). The readability of scientific texts is decreasing over time. bioRxiv, 119370. DOI: 10.1101/119370.
Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: Dwi Rizki Tirtasujana, 2007)
Other citations: Grazer B, Fishman C (2015). A curious mind: the secret to a bigger life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.