Our scientific literature (and academic literature more broadly) has a reputation for being impenetrable. That reputation is entirely deserved. That’s why things like the Sokal Hoax sometimes work, and that’s why scientists are sometimes mocked, or scorned, for operating like a priesthood, holding truth away from the layperson. It’s easy and fun to find a complex sentence, dense with unfamiliar jargon and turgid acronym-laden phrases, and hold it up for all to see (I’ll plead guilty: I do it myself in my scientific writing course). But it’s also naïve, unless you’re willing to think carefully about it – because there are two very different reasons why our literature is impenetrable. One is a bug, yes; but the other is very much a feature. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
(My Writing Pet Peeves, Part 5.)
Last week, in a moment of grading-related frustration, I suggested on Twitter that there is never any good reason to use the word “utilize”. As scientists, we love to use it – and I’ll have more to say about that below – but my claim is that in every writing situation, “use” is a better choice. It’s shorter, it’s simpler, it sounds less pretentious.
Why the pushback? Continue reading
Image: Word cloud based on selections from Oke, Heard, and Lundholm 2014
I posted last month about the etymology of the life-history term semelparity (it’s more interesting than it sounds), and that got me thinking about jargon. Our scientific literature has a reputation for being turgid, tedious, and difficult to read. There are many reasons for this (I’ve written about some, and see a recent Atlantic essay here), but our technical terminology is part of it. We use lots of technical words, newly coined words, and long words (and also lots of condensed “words” that serve as shorthand for longer things*). We have allosteric, baryon, disconformity, fractal, metalloid, and on and on and on. I work in part with the gall-forming moth Gnorimoschema gallaesolidiginis. Good grief.
By “technical terminology”, you might think I mean “jargon”, but not quite, and that’s my point today. Continue reading