Jargon hurts our science – but we just can’t help ourselves

It’s rare that the appearance of a new scientific paper makes me snort and say “Ha, I told you so!” out loud, but it happened last week. Alejandro Martínez and Stefano Mammola’s paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asks the simple and obvious question: does using jargon* in a paper’s title or abstract affect the citation impact of that paper?  The answer is “yes”: papers (in cave science**) with more jargon in their titles and abstracts get cited less.

We already knew, of course, that jargon hurts science communication. Good science communication considers the background of the audience and speaks to them in language they find comfortable. You can overdo this, but it’s uncontroversial that science communication should avoid jargon.  But that’s not the same question as whether jargon hurts science.

Whether jargon hurts science is an interesting question, because there’s good jargon and bad jargon. We need precise words to communicate scientific ideas precisely, and those precise words can be discipline- or subdiscipline-specific. Metalloid, organophosphate, LaGrange points, RNA, and others are good jargon (in their place): they communicate effectively with specialized audiences that share knowledge of them. At least when we’re writing within our disciplines, we can assume those are the audiences we have. But what if we want to reach outside our most narrowly drawn disciplines? And what if audiences who understand the jargon still find it hampers communication? What’s the net effect of jargon on the impact of our science?

Martínez and Mammola estimated the fraction of jargon words in titles and abstracts, and pulled citation data, for about 21,000 papers in cave science. The effect is pretty clear: as jargon usage goes up, citation rates go down. (The effect isn’t linear, and the relationship is noisy, but it’s highly significant and the effect isn’t weak.)  And that means that jargon hurts science. It’s not that citation is the only important indicator of a paper’s impact, but it’s surely a pretty good one***: science is cumulative, with one insight building on others, and citation is a powerful way we can track that.

So, we tell each other we hate jargon; people outside our fields tell us they hate jargon; and now we have evidence to demonstrate (and quantify) the harm done by jargon. So we’ll stop using it, right?

Sorry, I’m back – took me a minute to stop laughing there. There’s no sign whatsoever that we’re about to stop using jargon. In fact, we’ve been using more of it all the time (consider for example the truly startling extent of the problem we have with acronyms, which are jargon of a particularly pernicious persuasion****).

Why do we do this? Why do we use jargon despite suspecting (and now knowing) that it’s a Bad ThingTM? Well, I sometimes give a whole talk on the subject, which I call Why Scientific Writing Sucks. (The talk broadens the lens from jargon to the many sins we commit in scientific writing, as we reproduce as writers all the features we dislike as readers – passive voice, long convoluted sentences, tedious impersonality, and more.) There are a number of plausible reasons. Sometimes people use jargon to deliberately obscure meaning; sometimes to signal membership in a professional in-group; sometimes to claim special elite status for knowledge in a field. But I think the most important explanation is both more banal and, unfortunately, more difficult to overcome than any of those. I think it’s that the writing we see in our literature sounds “science-y” to us, and we want our writing to sound science-y too, so we reproduce what we read. This circularity of expectation dooms us to never write any better than those who wrote before us, and it’s a real problem.

I’m not sure how to test my hypothesis (that we use jargon because we want to sound like other literature that uses jargon).  But I’m almost sure it’s correct because of my experience with the way we teach undergraduates to write. This usually starts with our telling first- or second-year students to “write this lab report like a scientific paper”, and rather than explain what that means, we advise them to read some scientific papers and “write like that”. Which they do…and that’s really the whole problem. But I don’t think it stops with our undergraduate selves. We have a real problem breaking the psychological hold the past literature has on us. I think that’s a big reason it’s so hard for us to let go of the passive voice, why we use so many acronyms, why we don’t use common contractions, and much, much more.

So: we don’t like reading jargon; we know (now) that using it hurts our science; but we do it anyway because we just can’t help ourselves. That’s a bit nihilistic, isn’t it? Fortunately, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds, because if the problem is within ourselves, so is the solution. Nobody is making me put jargon in my papers; even if reviewers were to suggest adding it, I could (now) cite Martínez and Mammola in pushing back! As authors, we have the tools to change our literature for the better – if we choose to.

© Stephen Heard  April 13, 2021

Image: Word cloud (jargon cloud?) based on selections from Oke, Heard, and Lundholm 2014 Yes, that’s a glass house I’ve been living in.


*^With biting irony, the paper’s title refers to jargon as specialized terminology, which is arguably, itself, jargon – and is certainly unwieldy.

**^It really hurt me not to type “speleology” for cave science there, but the jargon ironometer was already maxed out.

***^With obvious exceptions. Nobody wants to write that paper that’s cited 1,000 times for how wrong it is. <Hurries off to check his own citation record.> By the way, you might wonder if the causality is the wrong way around: might people use less jargon when they have an important result they want to share across fields, so that (anticipated) citation rate drives jargon rather than the other way around?  Martínez and Mammola check this by separating the data into “specialist cave journal” and “multidisciplinary journal” and finding the effect is similar within categories. There are some other wrinkles, too, which is one reason it’s worth reading the paper, not just my take on it. (Another reason is that it’s delightfully written.)

****^Yes, I’m inordinately proud of that construction. If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, you’ll surely be scarcely surprised.

7 thoughts on “Jargon hurts our science – but we just can’t help ourselves

  1. Michael James

    The negative correlation between jargon and citations is interesting. Over my career, I’ve made similar observations about writing clearly, which we can view as a broader version of writing without jargon. The best researchers in my field write very clearly. I think there are two reasons: 1) they think clearly and understand their work and its context well; and 2) they are secure in their positions and see no need to dress up their work as better than it is. When second tier researchers realize their work has minimal significance but don’t have a better prospect for a publication, they try to dress their weak work up as being more important than it is. This process necessarily results in unclear writing, and often, excessive jargon.

    We’d all like to think this strategy isn’t effective, but it often is. I’ve heard versions of the following comments about the same paper: “it’s so simple, it’s brilliant!” and “it’s so simple, hardly worth accepting.” Some lazy reviewers take their lack of understanding parts of a paper as a sign that they’ve missed something deep in the paper.

    So, I’m suggesting that jargon isn’t necessarily the cause of low citations, but that both often have a common root cause. If I’m right, then if we were to rewrite the jargon-filled papers clearly, then we’d see that, on average, they would have less significance than the less jargon-filled papers.

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  2. kenworthy4

    Interestingly, I wasn’t sure what you meant by ‘cave science’. Was it some reference to cavemen or some obscure reference to science performed in isolation? When I got to ‘speleology’ I knew exactly what you meant, not because I’m immersed in that field but because I once went potholing!

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  3. Jessie Eiting

    Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve been chewing on the idea of good and bad jargon since Tuesday! I would like to see demographics of the authors on papers that use more “good” jargon. As Michael James pointed out in his comment, some researchers do write clearly and avoid jargon. I’d like to know what similar characteristics there are among the “good writers” in scientific papers. Are these characteristics something that can then be emulated or taught, in order to change scientific writing? Would it be possible to then predict “good” or “more cited” writing based on those characteristics in other authors? Might be difficult to tease the effect out, considering the other things that can factor in to good writing. Still, I agree with you that if we want to read better papers, we need to change the way we write.

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