Often in the discussion around scholarly communication, we see pleas for authors to write in plainer language, and to minimize the use of jargon. While I understand the motivation behind this, wanting non-experts to be able to understand research, to me it works against the main purpose of the published research paper — to serve as a high-level conversation among experts. A research paper must assume some level of prior knowledge, otherwise, for example, a molecular biologist would have to start each paper with an explanation of the structure of DNA and turn each research report into a textbook.

Explaining your results in a simple enough manner that anyone not versed in the field is a really good thing to be able to do, but it is not an easy skill to pick up (which is why we value effective science communicators like Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson so highly). And as with most suggestions about how to change the way research is reported, it’s best to think in terms of new things being additive, rather than substitutive. Can one add a “layman’s summary” to a paper without denigrating the value the paper offers for the expert?

Regardless, a friend recently sent the glorious jargon-filled video below. I have no idea what he’s selling, but it sounds great!

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


10 Thoughts on "Jargon"

It really seems like the presenter can barely keep from cracking up while giving the pitch. I’m delighted to report that my institution offers opportunities for graduate students to begin practicing public communication skills. We put together a 3MT competition on our campus that the Graduate School manages and has since modified to be more inclusive. It is now open to students at all phases of their respective programs, not just those who are post-dissertation proposal defense. They are learning to speak or pitch their research to audiences at all levels of engagement. It is my hope that they learn to “read the room” and understand when to use their research context with experts and with non-experts alike. And further, see doors opened to them in their careers that will permit them to more broadly impact the world with their work.

So…. It’s one thing to stuff your copy with specialist words.

It’s another to write the whole thing IN PASSIVE VOICE. Even where an author should use technical nouns and verbs, they ought to use them in the ACTIVE voice, and use simpler language to connect those specialist words…

I appreciate I’m probably singing to the choir, but clear communication is about speaking to your audience.

That doesn’t require dumbing down your content, just avoiding un-necessary jargon. A technical paper’s audience is mostly other experts, who may be smarter and more knowledgeable than you, but study a related field. I would argue the only valid jargon is a label for a specific technique or apparatus or the key theory that is central to your work.

But if you’re writing for a broad audience, like an entire discipline, or multiple disciplines (perhaps a review article), and especially if your audience is global, then you also need to simplify your language to at least a college level as well.

And if you cannot convey your meaning using simpler language, then perhaps the confusion is on your end. Just saying…

ps. great video. I haven’t watched that in ages!

Good ol’ turboencabulator…and agree that jargon is perfectly fine when used as shorthand that improves efficiency among a specialized audience, but when it’s used as a type of knowledge signaling or purposeful obfuscation to “demonstrate” the expertise of the writer, that’s just bad writing.

Watch it with the YouTube CC on. It’s even better. … a drawn reciprocation dingle arm to reduce sinusoidal deep leno raishin.

Thanks for the Friday afternoon chuckle. This video reminds me of a sales meeting when a similar presentation was made to illustrate how specialized terms and acronyms can sound strange to those not familiar with them. The delivery proceeds with the usual tone, cadence, rhythms and hand motions common to a pitch that convey the assumption that the listener understands what is being said. Fast forward to today and it’s a lesson in inclusion.

Be aware that the public is also your audience and use plain English where possible

Pretty sure that’s the Chock-A-Block set (https://boingboing.net/2016/04/11/chock-a-block-early-retrocomp.html)

And I challenge the idea that explaining your work in plain language is not an easy skill to pick up. I have yet to meet a researcher who can’t do it. As others have said above, it’s just a matter of being clear on who the audience is. The reason we see so many #fails is that staying focused on a really specific audience is hard to do when writing ‘to’ them in absentia. But when standing in front of someone who is clearly not an expert, almost everyone is perfectly well able to adjust the language / depth of their communication. I’m not devaluing the additional articulacy that the best research communicators have, but I think it’s important not to give ‘regular’ researchers the sense (or indeed the excuse?) that clear communication is hard / rare.

Also in the spirit of calling it out / spelling it out / stamping it out, I also take issue with “layman’s”. Plain language, please? or lay person’s if we must?

But I’ll stop picking holes now, zoom out, and agree overall!

I agree with Charlie. There is nothing wrong – and everything right – with specialist jargon, it’s what convinces other specialists of relevance, and what drives SEO. But too often this is stitched together with vague, obscure or just plain difficult words and phrases, perhaps in a mistaken belief that this adds gravitas to the research. We should always use the shortest, simplest ways of expressing ourselves, for the sake of ALL readers. Nobody wants to deploy precious cognitive effort on unscrambling fluff. It’s not about writing for the ‘lay person’, who is very unlikely to be the audience, it’s about being precise and professional.

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