Jargon filled “scientific discourse”

I had initially thought to “weave” around this great essay, but sat over it for a couple of days. While materially, it makes great sense, but on closer scrutiny, it wants to “hark back to olden times” when the language flows were different; complete impractical for “modern age”.

The elements of scientific style – Works in Progress

How many scientific papers have you read in full over the past year? Presumably, none or very few, unless you belong to a small number of specific professionals, like researchers or science communicators. Even if you do read papers as part of your job, you probably haven’t read many of them beyond the title and abstract, especially if they lie outside your field of expertise.

There are several reasons for this, including the difficulty of accessing papers that lie behind the paywalls of large publishing companies and the extreme specialization of most academic articles, which limits their appeal. Also, scientific topics are often complex, and it’s generally not worth spending time and energy to understand a technical argument unless it’s particularly germane to your work.

The need for gaming the metrics is painfully obvious in the “publish or perish” academic culture. New ideas (or anything disproving the sacred cows) or proving the null hypothesis as “null” are frowned upon. It’s hard to imagine the distinct shift towards massive reviews and “meta-analysis” without improving the rigours of academic publishing per se. Or even anything remotely impacting the patterns of medical practice. For example, fractionation schedules have evolved according to local practise patterns, and nothing published will materially change it if it “works”. This has only added more complexity to a tangled oncology domain, for example, because most papers now seem straight out of “statistical mills” rather than simple correlations inferred from the results. The complexity itself lends credence to its “academic weight”. If it is not dense, it is not academic and therefore, not worth publishing.

Germane to this idea is that papers arose as a means to disseminate findings, but I strongly believe that capitalistic influences distorted the cooperative spirit between the scientists. If the sum total objective of publishing science is to advance its objectives and “benefit the humanity”, the science itself has distanced from its epitesmistic concerns. It is divorced from reality but allowing over-bureaucratisation and politicisation of the results.

Here’s more:

Academic papers today are filled with jargon and abbreviations. Subject to the contradictory requirements of presenting impactful work and respecting arbitrary word limits, they cram a lot of information in very little space, leaving no room for interesting style or concrete examples. Unrelated ideas are strung together in wall-of-text paragraphs, providing no guidance to readers, who must then spend their cognitive resources figuring out the structure rather than absorbing the contents. Citations, though necessary, cause unending distraction with a profusion of parenthetical names and years in the middle of long, meandering sentences.

Source: https://elifesciences.org/articles/60080#fig1

The author rightly points out:

Another culprit of poor style has been on the rise: the use of jargon. Jargon consists of rare technical words, and it serves a purpose similar to abbreviations: It allows researchers to quickly specify what they mean when they speak to an audience of their peers. But, again like abbreviations, specialized words can quickly turn a paper into a tough read, even for people who should have sufficient context. It is all too easy to underestimate how familiar others are with the vocabulary we use. So, although the specialization of science makes some amount of jargon more necessary now than in the past, it seems that we have gone too far. Ironically, even in a journal called Public Understanding of Sciencejargon is on the rise over the past few decades. Rare words are becoming less rare – and most of them, according to the paper, appear in only one article, rather than being either general academic vocabulary or disciplinary terminology.

The author’s focus was on the “language of science”, which is hard to reconsider, since the genie is out of the bottle.

The author concludes:

But we should be careful. There are features of the current dominant style that are essential for good science. One is the practice of systematically citing relevant prior work, which is almost never done outside of academia but is extremely useful in a field devoted to advancing knowledge. Another is the predictable format of papers, often the standard IMRaD model – introduction, methods, results, and discussion – which, although it can stifle expression, also allows readers to access the information they care about faster, something perhaps especially useful to non-native speakers of English. Relatedly, the norms of writing informative titles and abstract are helpful to the point of being all that most people will read of a paper. (Which isn’t to say that abstract style couldn’t be improved. In particular, most abstracts should probably not be walls of text.)

There seems to be no alternative to the acceptable methodologies of science. How do you make science more accessible? How do you develop a scientific temper? Definitely not by the obtuse and condensed wall of text. Over the long term, it’s the financial considerations that determine outcomes. Let’s be honest to ourselves. You can’t do science on empty stomachs.

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