As It Happens

Say what? More jargon in a paper means fewer scientists will read it, study finds

Cave scientist Alejandro Martinez found that researchers who lean too hard on jargon also risk alienating their peers in the same field — some of whom may not even agree on what those terms mean in the first place.

Study found that research crammed with technical terms is less likely to be cited

An archaeologist looks at newly-discovered cave paintings in Khao Sam Roi Yot national park in the coastal Prachuap Khiri Khan province in Thailand, on Sept. 10, 2020. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images)

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Science literature is often littered with technical terms that make little sense to people outside the field of research.

But cave scientist Alejandro Martinez found that researchers in his field who lean too hard on jargon also risk alienating their peers — some of whom may not even agree on what those terms mean in the first place.

Martinez and co-author Stefano Mammola spelunked through more than 20,000 academic articles about cave research. They found that articles with an abundance of jargon in the titles and abstract (or summary) were less likely to be cited by other scientific papers.

It doesn't take much, either: the study found "a sudden drop in citations when the proportion of jargon [in the abstract] was above one per cent," while the most highly-cited papers all had less than one per cent of jargon in the abstract.

"It shows that the more jargon you use, the less people read the paper somehow, because they cannot find a spot in their own research to cite it," Martinez told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Martinez and Mammola published their findings this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, with the jargon-free headline "Specialized terminology reduces the number of citations of scientific papers."

The researchers also put together a glossary of 1,500 jargon-y words, used frequently — and unhelpfully — by cave scientists.

A 'beautiful mess' of jargon

Cave science jargon can be particularly impenetrable, Martinez explained, because scientists from different countries and scientific disciplines — from geology to zoology to evolutionary biology — all contributed their own native words to build "this beautiful mess" of a shared lexicon.

While the study focused on cave research, it also noted several examples of jargon-laden terms that could be explained more plainly, for example: 

  • A zoologist defining a white blind salamander as a neotenic metazoan with anophthalmia;
  • A geologist describing marble as a metamorphic rock produced by the recrystallization of calcite or dolomite.

"In order to capture these meanings, you have to share the background [of] the person who's using the jargon," he said.

Martinez speculated that some authors' over-reliance on jargon may result in them being less understood, in an effort to look and sound intelligent.

Alejandro Martinez is an evolutionary biologist and researcher at The Molecular Ecology Group, based in Verbania, Italy. (Submitted by Alejandro Martinez)

"This technical language makes [the reader believe] that we know very well what we are talking about, no? But the problem is, even within the same field, a scientist working on that topic [won't] agree 100 per cent on the meaning of a word," he said.

Martinez said the study focused on the title and abstract because if a reader doesn't get the gist in the first few sentences, they're less likely to stick around and try to figure out what it means.

"This is the hook for the readers, no? So when someone is trying to decide which paper to read, the first thing that they check is the abstract," he said.

The study added that an over-reliance on jargon can have an added effect of making a paper less visible on online search engines.

"This is problematic because the better visibility a paper has in engine optimization search results, the more likely it is to attract readers and garner citations," it explained.

Don't alienate your audience

Impenetrable jargon isn't just a barrier to interdisciplinary research, of course. In 2020, Hillary Shulman said that the general public is more likely to bounce off of an article laden with unfamiliar language than an article written in more plainspoken English.

"When you're engaging with subjects like maybe politics, or health, or technology, you do need the public to understand or buy into some of these innovations," said Shulman, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.

"When scientists automatically use these terms, they may be alienating their audience more than they realize."

You can say 'laparoscopy' — or you could say 'minimally invasive surgery,' explained Hillary Shulman, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. (Ohio State University)

Martinez wants to make it clear that he's not condemning the use of jargon altogether. He just wants researchers and writers to think more critically about how they present their findings, to make it easier to share them with others.

"I mean, at the end of the paper we coined a jargon word to to define this misunderstanding that emerges when people just use jargon from different disciplines," he said. 

The newly-coined term? The Wittgensteinian shortfall.

"We did this in order to show that we are actually trying to joke a little bit about the problem that I think we all have."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview with Alejandro Martinez produced by Rachel Adams.


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