The saying, “if you can’t say it simply, then you don’t understand it properly”, makes a lot of sense to me.
As a scientist, I understand most (not all!) of what I read, and I’m not put off by the heavy jargon that is often generously scattered throughout the texts I work on. But while I understand it, I dislike jargon; it’s a secret language that excludes and intimidates many readers, and is generally not that fun to read.
I’m an editor by trade, which means I’ve seen at first-hand how excessive jargon can spoil the flow of an article, confuse the reader and make them feel as if it had been written in another language! When I’m editing scientific articles I always try my best to help the reader understand the text by simplifying and getting rid of (or inserting footnotes to explain) jargon.
Why scientists need to cut out jargon
Several thousand journals that were always only accessible by subscription are now free to view with publication costs being covered by the author or the author’s organization (i.e. open access publishing). This means scientific journals are now available to a whole new audience beyond scientists including laypeople and journalists.
As a result, many academic authors are realising that to broaden their readership further and bring their knowledge, understanding and research to a wider audience, they need to communicate their research findings more clearly and simply and on new forums. They understand that these new audiences get their information from social media, blogs, and news websites where information is updated fast, explained simply, and written in plain English.
Today’s public expect to read material that is clear, to the point, with no clichés or jargon, and to get read, scientific authors need to compete.
How do you do that? And it’s not just about eliminating jargon. Keep reading!
6 ways to write more accessible articles
Write your sentences in the active voice – Although grammatically correct, anything written in the passive voice simply doesn’t read as well. It often sounds dull and vague; the meaning can be confusing to the reader; the subject can be left out altogether, and the reader can be left wondering about missing pieces of information (e.g. “Who made a lot of noise? – A lot of noise was made”). The active voice is less wordy, more direct and clearer.
Reduce the number of words – Why say “in spite of the fact that” when “although” sounds so much better?! Get rid of redundant phrases that don’t add anything e.g. xxx. If a word or phrase can be removed or shortened without losing its meaning, do it! e.g. use “can” not “is capable of”, use “because” not “due to the fact that”, or use “now” not “at the present time”.
Don’t use foreign phrases or idioms (common sayings) – An idiom is a phrase that holds a certain meaning with a specific group of people. If a phrase does not make literal sense in the context – it is an idiom e.g. “they reported that they could see the light at the end of the tunnel; it was the holy grail of scientific discovery.” Do not use words such as “a priori”, “hoi polloi” or “verboten”, which may be unfamiliar to most readers. Other foreign words/phrases such as “status quo” or “faux pas” are commonly used and understood in English and can be used.
Write shorter sentences and avoid over-cautious language – Instead of saying, “It is possible that xx might be attributable to y”, say, “xx may be attributed to y”. Use shorter sentences that are more powerful and easier for the reader to understand. Use one main idea per sentence and split long sentences.
Avoid overused, clichéd phrases – e.g. “paradigm shift, more research is needed, cutting edge science, state-of-the-art equipment”.
Use simple words, get rid of jargon – Why use “avifauna” when everyone understands the word “birds”?!
So, there you have it. Six ways to dramatically improve the readability of your scientific articles for the wider audience they will undoubtedly reach now that many journals have become free to access and there is more grey literature online. If you would like more help and advice on how to improve your scientific articles further, please visit my website.