Is Technical Language Always Necessary?

Specialist language in scientific literature can, in my opinion, put people off. Is it always necessary? How can we strive to narrow the divide that jargon creates? And how am I going to address this when writing my PhD thesis? Musings below.

Lately I’ve been doing some more reading around my thesis subject in preparation for writing up. I’ve been making notes from textbooks, casting my eyes over topic reviews and poring over original research papers.

As I covered a subject related to my thesis, but unfamiliar to me, I suddenly realised how often I was stopping to look up the meaning of particular words or phrases. Every time I did so I’d have to go back and re-read the sentence or paragraph; it wasted a lot of time.

I’ve started to wonder how necessary this technical language really is. To me, it often feels a like a hang-up from the ‘Days of Science Past’, when there was a huge divide between the intelligent, educated upper classes and the typically uneducated working classes. The only people who would read these technical writings were the educated, and it almost seemed like a competition to see who could write the most jargon-filled paper (at least, that’s how I feel when I read old research papers). In addition, there seemed to be the attitude that if you didn’t understand something, you weren’t smart enough to be reading it, anyway.

Today though, scientists, and specialists of all kinds, are much closer to the general public. You don’t have to be a scientist to read original research. You don’t have to have a degree in physics to be interested to hear what’s going on at the Large Hadron Collider. You don’t have to be doing a PhD in cell biology to want to understand the basic principles of embryonic stem cell research. Science and society overlaps so much these days.

And that’s my point – why is science still using such technical language and alienating people who don’t understand it, when so many more people want to and can understand? Hell, I felt alienated reading about a subject related to my own PhD thesis, because I didn’t understand half the words.

Now, I understand in some contexts, for example in the interests of brevity and accuracy, technical language is useful for getting to the point quickly. I understand that specialist journals are just that, and they’re likely to only be read by people familiar with that subject. But what about papers in journals that cover everything and anything in a broad subject e.g. biology? Not every biologist is a neurologist, or a muscle physiologist, or a geneticist. We don’t all know the ‘common’ technical language for every field. I feel that the biggest journals, like Nature and Science, are a bit better at avoiding jargon (although occasionally some pretty rubbish science gets in), probably because they know their audience is incredibly broad, catering for scientists, journalists, the general public, and beyond.

I’m just wondering if it’s time for us to reassess the purpose and readership of some of these journals and textbooks. You can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to be accessed by a wider scope of people than it was, say, half a century ago. So isn’t about time we update our language to accommodate this? Particularly in instances when you can easily replace the technical word or jargon-filled phrase with common language of a similar length (I found this was a the case A LOT when I was looking stuff up recently; it was very frustrating).

This is what I intend to do when it comes to writing up my thesis. Originally I thought I’d do the ‘official’ version for my examiners and university and whatnot, full of all the technical terms one might expect, and then do a ‘simplified’ version for myself to keep, and for friends, family and The Internet (if anyone is remotely interested in reading it). And then I thought: why? Not only is that duplicating the work for myself, but why shouldn’t a PhD thesis be accessible to everyone? So that’s what I’m going to to. I’m going to make my thesis as readable as possible, for anyone. Of course there will be things like statistical tests where I’ll have to just write the name of the test I use rather than explaining how it works in a billion words, but where possible I’d like to make it simple.

I’d like to make a plea for future (and current) researchers to bear the non-specialists in mind when they write things up. We all like using big words when we know what they mean, because it makes us feel smart (I definitely do this) but surely it’s preferable that more people understand what you’ve spent the time and effort writing?

In this post I’ve really just been airing my thoughts on this matter, but I’d love to hear what other people think about this topic – do you think academic texts should be jargon-free? Do you think there’s a time and place that we should use jargon? Comment below or tweet me!

Enjoy this post? You might also like: The Joy of Editing


2 thoughts on “Is Technical Language Always Necessary?

  1. I fully agree with the sentiment of your post that technical language is used far too frequently in science papers when it is not necessary. As the breadth and depth of scientific research expands and the number of multidisciplinary studies increases, it is unreasonably to expect your readers will understand all the same terms that you do, or even more problematically, understand them to mean the same thing that you do.

    A couple of additional points to add to what you’ve already said:
    1. Jargon can make it harder for your writing to be read and understood by people who’s have a different first language to you and especially those who might be relying on word by word translations.
    2. A lot of evolutionary biology studies are still useful many years after they are published but given that the precise meaning of scientific jargon tends to change with time, again jargon can lead to miscommunication. Explicit definitions or citations can help mitigate this problem.

    To avoid being misunderstood or ignored your writing has to be as clear as possible. Here is a passage from Toft and Jaeger (1998) which present an example writing the same result in different ways:
    “The size and type effects were highly significant in a two-way ANOVA on wet and dry season diets, but the size-type interaction was significant only in the dry season. There was a significant correlation between mean prey size and body size in all species . . .”
    (be sure not to tell your reader whether the correlation was positive or negative). This nonsense, sounding as if it were reincarnated out of a statistical manual, means:
    “Frogs ate different sizes and types of prey throughout the year. Ant specialists and ant avoiders consumed all sizes of prey within guilds, respectively, with larger frogs eating larger prey on average. However, during the dry season, the larger sized ants were not available and hence were missing from the diets of ant specialists.”
    We are sure that you could improve the example of the “better” way to express these results. Our point here is that the first way is driven by statistical jargon whereas the second way explains the simple biological results that you found in plain language, with some concession for using technical, scientific terms with precise meaning.”
    Toft CA, Jaeger RG. 1998. Writing for scientific journals I: the manuscript. Herpetologica 54S: S42-S54.

  2. Pingback: Let’s talk about techniques! 1: Immunohistochemistry – Neuroscience and Other Adventures!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s