As It Happens

Scientists: lose the jargon, or you'll lose readers, says communications prof

A new study finds that when people encounter scientific jargon they tune out — and even worse, it often kills their interest in science.

Scientists 'may be alienating their audience more than they realize,' says Hillary Shulman

A new study found that readers lost interest in scientific papers that used a lot of jargon. (Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images)

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If scientists want to keep people interested in their studies — keep it simple and cut the jargon.

That's the conclusion Hillary Shulman and a team of researchers arrived at after studying how the general public respond to the use of scientific jargon in the media and other mediums. 

Shulman is an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University and the lead author of the new study, which was published online in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Shulman about how the study worked and what we can all learn from the findings.

Here is part of their conversation.

What's your reaction when you see a scientific paper that has a lot of jargon in it?

My reaction, in some ways, is — of course it does. But then, in other ways, I think I'm not really responding to the jargon. It's just kind of automatic. I'm either into the paper, or it's not for me, and so I just don't read the article.

Hillary Shulman is an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. (Submitted by Hillary Shulman)

You decided to study how people react to articles that do have a lot of inside language in them. And so, what did you want to discover?

I think my whole program of research is really interested in how we could get people to engage with complex topics.

As somebody who studies communication, I'm particularly interested in what we can do from a communication perspective to bring people into topics, environments, or contexts where they might not normally be predisposed to engage with.

OK. So you decided to test that and see how people reacted. Some things are predictable but others are kind of surprising in your study.

Yeah, I think so. In this particular study we showed people a short, like, four sentence paragraph about self-driving cars, 3D bio-printing and robotic surgeons.

We basically thought that people would read these articles — some had jargon in it, some didn't — and would kind of respond to the jargon with a little bit more uncertainty and a little less clarity about the topics.

But what we found was that when people were exposed to the jargon, not only did they respond poorly to the topics, but they reported that they weren't interested in science in general and didn't feel particularly confident about their abilities to understand science in general.

So they blamed themselves to some extent?

I think blame is a little strong. In some ways, they just kind of explained their lack of knowledge about the material as, like, "Oh, I guess this isn't my thing."

As an example, Shulman points out that scientists might confuse the public with the term "laparoscopy" while they could just say "minimally invasive surgery" instead. (Ohio State University)

Can you give us some examples of the sentences you gave people?

Sure. So, like, in the "self-driving cars" that's a colloquial way of labelling this new technology. But "autonomous vehicles" is actually something you see quite a bit in how popular press articles talk about it. So we pulled that from Wired.

Same with "vigilance decrement," which I think means making it hard to see or something of the like, and "laparoscopic surgery," if I'm pronouncing that correctly. We actually pulled that term from an article about robotic surgery on, which is the American Association of Retired Persons. So, you know, these words are everywhere. 

How did [people] feel when they read the article or the information that had the the plain spoken English in it?

See that's the thing that was so exciting. You'd expect people to just respond to the subject matter in ways that reflected they understood the material. But actually because of the ease with which they process to the information they had an easy time reading the articles.

They were actually like, "Yeah, well I enjoyed reading about this because I'm a science person."

Woman reading from a university textbook stacked on top of other textbooks
Shulman says she doesn't want to dumb down science, but that it's important for scientists to consider the general public when writing papers in order to make them more accessible. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Now if you have ... this idea that you don't belong here. This is not for you ... this is what people said. But isn't that also the purpose of this language. It is a kind of secret handshake. It is within a profession and understanding that ... we're talking to each other. I mean, isn't there a role for that within a profession or a field of study?

Oh, 100 per cent.

I don't mean to advocate against jargon. I think there's a precision and an efficiency with these terms that people in the know understand.

But 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.

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

So this is more of a little best practice for public communication.

Is there any particular word or phrase that really gets your goat when it comes to jargon?

Yes. And from this whole experience I could say easily that it is the word jargon that I think, ironically, drives me crazy.

Written by Sarah Jackson and John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.