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Jargon in science communication research and practice

 By Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, Orli Wolfson, Elad Segev

Too basic to mention, a truism too dull to repeat, jargon is still one of the greatest hurdles to effective science communication. Despite all the emphasis on dialogue and participatory actions, it's almost impossible for readers to understand a text if the vocabulary is more akin to a foreign language. With COVID-19 dictating our movements and social interactions, we are dependent today more than ever on the engagement of individuals from all walks and talks of life with public health guidelines and policy. These are spelled out in the languages of values and biology, ethics, and medicine. 

Jargon concerns us both as science communication researchers who aim for interdisciplinary collaboration and visibility, and as science communication practitioners who recognize the need to communicate scientific concepts in vivid and familiar ways.  To do so, we need to support scientists to learn how to talk about science in new ways. Naturally, science communication researchers and practitioners also need to talk to each other to identify and co-create evidence-based work to direct our practice. It makes truly little sense to support informed science-based decision making while ignoring that directive when it comes to our own practice. 

It takes two to tango. The small number of practitioners drawing on science communication scholarship as a resource is not a source of pride for our field. A 2007 UK survey found that only 42% of the attendees at a science communication conference read PUS and 36% read Science Communication at least occasionally, whereas 55% never read either journal. In Germany, a representative survey showed that hardly any practitioners knew, let alone used, scholarly journals. This is most likely the case in many other non-English speaking countries. I can attest for Israel. 

This does not imply that new approaches and findings are not being popularized or finding their way into practitioners' work. Nor does it suggest that jargon is the main or sole hurdle standing in the way of a fruitful intra-disciplinary dialogue. But jargon does matter. 

In our latest article - Jargon use in Public Understanding of Science papers over three decades- we took up the challenge put forward by Public Understanding of Science (PUS) editor Hans Peter Peters and direct our attention to our own discourse in Public Understanding of Science. PUS is an interdisciplinary journal, which aims to serve diverse audiences. Its mission, according to the journal, is to cater to the community of scholars, scientists of all disciplines, research managers, and science communication practitioners. We decided to examine whether and how jargon use and readability have changed in the decades since its founding.

The papers that were published in 1999/2000 (47), 2009 (49) and 2019 (65) were tested for their readability (using the Flesch Reading formulas) and their use of jargon using the De-Jargonizer. We found that readability has decreased and the use of jargon has increased in the period between 1999/2000 and the last twenty years. 
Specifically, authors used fewer rare words in 1999/2000 than today. Rare words are not necessarily a bad thing, since the shift in vocabulary might reflect the professionalization of the field. To test this, we omitted all words appearing on the general academic vocabulary list. We found that the percentage of general academic words was higher in 1999/2000 than more recently. This may indicate that more words that are specific to the science communication discipline have been added to discourse. However, it may also indicate that earlier papers used more general academic vocabulary that the readers of PUS probably understood (Table 1).

The popularity of methodological words, for example, has changed. In 1999/2000 the rare word 'correlations' appeared rather frequently, but since then ‘regression’, ‘variance’, and ‘predictors’ as rare-but-frequent methodological words have replaced it. Methodological words are a good example because they are classic jargon: researchers get attached to them. But one's old friends, such as 'discursive' or ‘regression', may seem strange to other professionals. As scholars, we cannot totally avoid them, but we should try to avoid the avoidable.

Table 1. The ten most frequent rare words, by years. Words identified as “rare” by the De-Jargonizer, after excluding general academic vocabulary identified by the new academic vocabulary list. Recurring words are marked in the same color

Do science communication scholars develop their own professional vocabulary? We explored this question by comparing the most frequent words that were identified as “rare” in papers published in 2019 that were (a) shared by the community (appeared in more than one article) versus those that were (b) exclusive to only one paper (Figure 1). The results showed that most of the frequently used rare words were not exclusive to science communication. “Popularization”, and naturally, “PUS” might be considered “our” jargon. 

Notice the number of unfamiliar acronyms in the “frequent and exclusive” rare words panel (Figure 1b). We are not alone – a new paper analyzed more than 24 million article titles and 18 million article abstracts published between 1950 and 2019. It found that from more than one million unique acronyms, just 0.2% were used regularly, and most acronyms (79%) appeared fewer than 10 times. This is not a pattern that a science communication journal should be part of. 

Figure 1. Examples of words identified as “rare” by the De-Jargonizer in papers published in 2019, after excluding general academic vocabulary identified by the new academic vocabulary list
Fig. 1A. Frequent and shared by the community: Examples of words appearing in more than one article, listed by the number of different articles (the number next to the term).

Fig. 1B. Frequent and exclusive: Examples of words that appeared in only one article in 2019.

Automatic tools for identifying potential jargon in a text may be valuable for those who write about science, because they point out words that have become second nature to some, but could be incomprehensible to readers. A recent paper “Quantifying scientific jargon” provides a publicly available R script that measures the level of jargon in text. They also calculated standard jargon values for different text genres, so the user can evaluate the level of jargon with respect to a specific audience.

This script is based on earlier jargon studies that first suggested quantification to the level of jargon in text, and the DeJargonizer website, that highlights rare words and returns an overall jargon score. The Willoughby, Johnson & Sterman jargon evaluation tool provides feedback on the comprehensibility of a text on the popular R platform, which should be a plus for its many users. It lists standard jargon values for different text genres as a comparative reference. The script also provides other text analysis tools, such as a jargon word list and word cloud. This makes it a valuable tool for autonomous learning and assessment.

Writing science in a comprehensive manner is not an easy task. Excessive use of jargon is a challenge even when addressing an audience of professionals, not to mention other audiences. The identification of appropriate vs. unsuitable jargon for specific purposes and audiences is a crucial task, and tools that can help writers are always good news. 

But shouldn’t we be doing more, to increase, at least, the flow of findings, needs, and experience between science communication researchers and practitioners? Adding a Practical Perspective Abstract to accompany each research article published in PUS could be a beginning, creating a shared space for exchanging ideas. Such abstracts, adapted from the primary literature to make them more useful and accessible to the diverse audiences of the journal, could be elaborated upon here, in the PUS blog, much like this post is trying to do. 

Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, Orli Wolfson | Applied Science Communication Research Group, Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology
Elad Segev | Faculty of Science, Holon Institute of Technology, Holon, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology


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