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.

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