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Science is getting harder to read

From obscure acronyms to unnecessary jargon, research papers are increasingly impenetrable – even for scientists.

10 September 2020

Dalmeet Singh Chawla

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Science is becoming more difficult to understand due to the sheer number of acronyms, long sentences, and impenetrable jargon in academic writing.

Not only does such overcomplicated language alienate non-scientists and the media, it can also make life difficult for junior researchers and those transitioning to new fields.

Adrian Barnett, a statistician at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, describes the amount of new and obscure acronyms used in scientific papers today as “exhausting” – and it’s only getting worse.

While some acronyms are useful because they are widely understood (AIDS, HIV, DNA), many hinder readability because they are harder to absorb than if the term were written out in full.

Take this sentence from a 2002 paper studying the bone strength of young athletes, for example: "RUN had significantly (p < 0.05) greater size-adjusted CSMI and BSI than C, SWIM, and CYC; and higher size, age, and YST-adjusted CSMI and BSI than SWIM and CYC."

“Scientists love to write these acronyms,” says Barnett, “but other scientists don’t necessarily pick them up, and they end up hanging around and causing a lot of confusion.”

Barnett and his colleagues analyzed the use of acronyms in more than 24 million paper titles and 18 million abstracts indexed by the biomedical database PubMed between 1950 and 2019.

The study, published in eLife, found that 19% of paper titles and 73% of abstracts included at least one acronym. Of the roughly 1.1 million acronyms identified, the vast majority (79%) were used fewer than 10 times in the scientific literature.

The study also found that the frequency of acronyms used in abstracts has increased tenfold since 1956, from 0.4 acronyms per 100 words to 4 acronyms per 100 words.

Barnett says it’s “fairly damning” that the vast majority of acronyms are used so few times. He encourages researchers to think twice before introducing new acronyms in their papers. If an abstract is difficult to understand, he says, the paper is less likely to entice people to read the whole manuscript.

Long titles, longer abstracts

Not only has the use of new acronyms increased dramatically in recent papers, so has the overall length of titles and abstracts, the eLife study found.

This recalls the results of a 2017 analysis of more than 700,000 abstracts in papers published in biomedical and life sciences journals between 1881 and 2015. Also published in eLife, this study found that the average number of syllables in each word, the percentage of difficult words, and the length of sentences had steadily increased in studies published since 1960.

Not only do overly wordy sentences and difficult words make papers less readable, they could also hinder their likelihood of being cited. An analysis conducted last year on characteristics of highly cited papers found that the titles with the greatest impact were just 10 words long.

William Hedley Thompson, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, who co-authored the 2017 analysis, says science shouldn’t just be about writing for your colleagues.

“If your target audience is just your scientific subfield, that's great, but hopefully science isn't just all about writing for your bubble,” he says.

Jargon on the rise

The 2017 eLife paper also showed a rapid increase in the use of complex language in academic papers, which suggests that scientists are opting for jargon terms where simpler words would suffice.

“While science is complex, and some jargon is unavoidable, this does not justify the continuing trend that we have shown,” Thompson and colleagues write.

“It is also worth considering the importance of comprehensibility of scientific texts in light of the recent controversy regarding the reproducibility of science,” they add. “Reproducibility requires that findings can be verified independently. To achieve this, reporting of methods and results must be sufficiently understandable.”

A preprint study published earlier this year analyzed the relationship between the use of jargon and citations in 21,486 articles. The authors concluded that jargon in the title and abstract significantly reduces the number of citations a paper receives.

Kipling Williams, a psychologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who has written about jargon and acronyms hampering science communication, says the increase in technical language only isolates non-specialist readers.

He adds that academic papers should be written in a more accommodating way for informed readers who are not researchers, such as policymakers, journalists, and patients.

“The public is paying for a lot of this research, and so they should be able to at least get a reasonable handle on what’s being said.”

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