Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Importance of Jargon

by Ian Le Guillou, Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge

Although contradictory to the hopes of the Access to Understanding competition, writing about the work described in 'NLK is a Novel Therapeutic Target for PTEN Deficient Tumour Cells' made me realise the importance of scientific jargon. Yes, it makes research very difficult to understand for anyone outside of that specialism, but it exists for a reason.

My article was 800 words long and yet I barely covered the contents of the paper's abstract, which also has the aim of summarising the work for an interested audience. The abstract was only 155 words: a five-fold compression through the use of jargon. This means that scientists in the field can take in the important points and decide whether to read further in less than 30 seconds – an important issue when there are thousands of research papers published every day.

Scientific jargon is so compact because the words have very precise meanings that do not need to be explained to those in the know. The PTEN paper was probably the closest fit to my own research of the papers in the competition, but still far enough that I had to look up several terms. However, this helped when writing about it because I knew which were the complicated sections. That meant I could make an extra effort when explaining it to other people. The familiarity is key: after using the same jargon every day among colleagues, it is far from easy to switch it off. It takes a concerted effort to avoid slipping into your usual vernacular and to explain each concept from its basics.

Scientists are increasingly being expected to interact with the public as part of their duty. Researchers are being given media training or being offered public engagement courses to help with this, but it is no easy task. There are few professions that are expected to balance the deeply specialised vocabulary of their peers with an expectation to be public facing.

I see the Access to Understanding competition as part of the movement to bring science into the 21st century, where Web 2.0 has democratised information. The media are no longer the gatekeepers; everyone can publish and everyone can access. The public no longer rely as much on journalists to learn about the latest developments; instead they can go straight to the source. Social media and blogs allow scientists to explain the significance of what they do and directly connect with people who are interested in their research.

Although jargon is important and necessary for scientists to communicate among themselves, it creates a barrier to the outside world. We can't blame scientists for using jargon, but the public want to hear from them. It will take a lot of practice to explain in plain language but hopefully that way everyone will have a greater access to understanding.

Note: Ian was one of the winners (awarded joint second place) of the 2013 Access to Understanding science-writing competition for his entry 'Another brick in the wall', which describes research published in the article 'NLK is a novel therapeutic target for PTEN deficient tumour cells'.

See also guest posts by competition winners Emma Pewsey (first place) and Claire Sand (joint second place) for their reflections on Access to Understanding.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

My reflections on the Access to Understanding competition

By Claire Sand, Institute of Pharmaceutical Science, King's College London

The Access to Understanding competition had instant appeal for me because it seemed to combine my two greatest interests – science and writing. I have always been fascinated with the human body (particularly in disease), and am currently working on my PhD in cardiovascular research, but having been an avid reader all my life, I have an equally strong interest in language and semantics. I’ve often thought of medical journalism as a potential future career option, but never had the opportunity to test my skills and gain feedback from readers outside of academic science. Placing in the top three has provided me with validation that this is a viable path to take, and I feel encouraged and inspired to pursue this type of writing further.

Coming from a family of non-scientists I have always been keen to share exciting discoveries (whether my own or others’) in terms that won’t be off-putting. In addition to the personal satisfaction that can be gained from sparking scientific interest in non-experts, I also believe that this type of public engagement is essential on a number of other levels. I have often found non-scientists to be refractory to hearing about research because they have preconceived notions that they won’t understand, or that they are being patronised. Science as a profession (and especially animal research) seems to be shrouded in mystery, and is generally viewed at best with disinterest, and at worst with suspicion.

When people ask me what I do for a living, my reply of “I work in medical science” is often met with “Oh right” and a rapid change of subject – people don’t seem to have a concept of what this job actually involves, and are usually not particularly keen to find out, or don’t know what questions to ask. At first this reaction surprised me: medical breakthroughs always elicit great public excitement (and praise of doctors), but I am becoming increasingly aware of an information ‘black hole’ in medical progress; many people are entirely unaware of the years of lab work that go into understanding a disease and developing new drugs to target it. This is, more than anything, the result of poor communication by scientists. In a time where money for research is more and more difficult to come by, we as scientists should be trying to get people excited about our research. Raising awareness of the origin of medicines, and engaging with both the public and policy makers is the only way to ensure the future of scientific funding. I am hopeful that down the line the efforts of public engagement schemes like Access to Understanding will demystify the process of medical research and will open more doors into the extraordinary and awe-inspiring world of science.

Note: Claire was one of the winners (awarded joint second place) of the 2013 Access to Understanding science-writing competition for her entry 'Blood vessels from skin: the new frontier in tissue engineering', which describes research published in the article 'Direct reprogramming of fibroblasts into endothelial cells capable of angiogenesis and reendothelialization in tissue-engineered vessels'.