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
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
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.
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
‘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.