Is this hard to read…or is it just me?

Science is complicated, but does it have to be saturated with acronyms and jargon as well? A recent Nature article highlights a handful of meta-studies that have recently analyzed the use of jargon, obscure acronyms, and very long sentence structure over the past century (or so) in science publications. And, surprise, surprise, all of these metrics have increased – in some cases, to extreme degrees. For example, the frequency of acronym use was shown to increase from 0.4 acronyms per 100 word in 1956 to 4 acronyms per 100 words in 2019, that’s 10x as many acronyms! Even more interesting was the observation that, of the 1.1 million acronyms identified in this eLife paper, 79% were used fewer than 10 times in all of the scientific literature. Which is to say, most acronyms observed were made up by the authors and referenced something so specific that it was hardly ever mentioned in a publication again. Of course, some acronyms indeed make reading easier, most people don’t need deoxyribonucleic acid to be written out in place of DNA, but the VAST majority of acronym use these days is much more obscure, and places unnecessary cognitive load on the reader.

As a third year graduate student, finally authoring and editing writing to be published, I’ve been reflecting on this issue myself. In fact, I recently helped edit a peer’s journal article, and found myself hesitating to suggest that maybe some of the concepts he mentioned needed clarification. Were these things that every cardiac electrophysiologist should understand? Did he not explain the phenomenon fully because it really was so obvious? Would I look dumb by asking him to explicitly explain how this phenomenon occurred in his manuscript?  I understood what he was implying, but I felt it was unfair to assume all readers would as well. Our research is unique because it is a very niche corner of biomedical science, but will ultimately be translated into therapies for heart disease. For this reason, our literature is read by a diverse audience of professionals, MD and PhD alike. I think it is our responsibility to write as clearly as possible and aim to maximize language accessibility. This will benefit not only the established readers from our own field, but also trainees, and those transitioning from another field.


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One Response to Is this hard to read…or is it just me?

  1. Amilia Evans

    This is very interesting because I have been editing PhD dissertations for civil engineering candidates. As a technical communication professional and junior rhetorician, I’ve been pondering on how STEM can evolve from jargon heavy vague language. I’ve been toiling with the avoidance of the researcher’s presence in descriptions in science experiments. For dissertations, sometimes I’m not sure if the author is explaining someone else’s experiment or their own and then the paper becomes weighed down with passive voice slowing down comprehension. I may conduct a little research to figure out the best course of action. Change is coming!

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