Academic papers and texts are becoming more convoluted and ciphered, not only because science itself has become increasingly ramified and specialized but also because wordy phrases, acronyms, and jargon are being overused. And this is true not only of STEM and life-science fields. A recent survey by researchers at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Macau, in China, suggests the problem is equally prevalent in linguistics and language journals.
The study, led by Shan Wang and published in July in Scientometrics, analyzed a corpus of 71,628 abstracts published from 1991 to 2020 in 187 journals in these fields in the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), a database published by Clarivate Analytics. The paper employed a set of nine commonly used readability indexes developed over the past 50 years, based on metrics such as sentence length, number of syllables per word, and percentage of “difficult” or little-known words. A software system was used to assign a readability score to each abstract. Their findings show that abstracts in these fields are becoming extremely difficult to read, with some of them receiving a score rendering them almost entirely illegible.
The paper in Scientometrics is the latest in a slew of related studies in recent years. One of these studies, published in 2017 by a team led by William Thompson at Karolinska Institute, in Sweden, reviewed a corpus consisting of 707,452 abstracts published between 1881 and 2015 in 122 biomedical journals: over a fourth of abstracts published in 2015 had such a low readability level that even graduate students would struggle to understand them, compared to 16% in 1960.
This area of investigation is still incipient in Brazil. One of the few Brazilian papers on the subject analyzed the readability of articles in the field of environmental sciences. The authors, at Santa Cruz State University in Bahia, northeastern Brazil, reviewed 77 papers published between 2009 and 2013 in three Brazilian journals: Contexto Internacional, Cadernos Pagu, and Revista Direito GV. The researchers looked at variables such as average sentence length, average syllable count, and number of unique words. The texts were processed using software to test them for clarity. Readability was shown to range from medium (moderately difficult) to low (very difficult). The paper, lead-authored by Celeste Dias de Amorim, a professor of environmental science at Faculdade Pitágoras in Vitória da Conquista, northeastern Brazil, reveals a paradox: Brazil has invested heavily in publishing its research via a journal library run by the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES), and through open-access journals in the SciELO Brasil library. “But depending on how difficult they are to read, scientific papers can fail to fulfill their role of sharing knowledge among peers and across disciplines, which is especially important in environmental science research,” writes the paper.
Overuse of long sentences and jargon is among the factors affecting the readability of academic texts
Poor readability in academic papers can stem from a number of factors. Studies in this field typically associate poor readability with an overuse of wordy sentences, multisyllable words—with four syllables or more—and jargon. Maria José Bocorny Finatto, a researcher in the Department of Linguistics, Philology, and Literary Theory at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), notes, however, that using metrics such as syllable count to assess the readability of academic papers has its limits and should be treated with caution. For instance, words such as “apple” and “praxis” are treated as equivalents, even though they each have a different level of complexity. “But this does not mean that scientific texts have not in fact become less readable, due especially to the excessive use of technical jargon,” she says.
Thompson, at Karolinska Institute, also identified an increasing use of what he and his team referred to as “general science jargon,” or multisyllable words that are not field-specific but have become part of the standard lexicon of contemporary scientific papers. These include clichés such as “robust,” “significant,” and “innovative,” which are also used in other contexts but are more prevalent in scientific literature. “These words are not inherently unreadable or opaque but can, in the aggregate, increase the amount of mental effort involved in reading the text,” wrote Thompson.
Dentist Sigmar de Mello Rode, chairman of the Brazilian Association of Science Publishers (ABEC Brazil), says the use of jargon in scientific texts can be necessary when there is no commonly used word to replace it. In many cases, however, it is an attempt by researchers to demonstrate expertise or authority in a given field. Rode believes that scientists’ writing habits are shaped during graduate education, when students are encouraged to use field-specific terminology in their dissertations and theses so they will be recognized as academic work in the scientific community. General science jargon, he adds, is a way for scientists to emphasize what they believe to be significant about their work, as a strategy to increase the chances of their papers being accepted for publication. “This is all the more true given the pressure that researchers feel to get their work published at any cost,” says Rode, a professor at São Paulo State University (UNESP).
Another factor that has made academic texts progressively less readable is the growing use of acronyms, not only in the body but also in the abstracts and titles. While some are useful and widely understood, like AIDS and DNA, many hinder readability as the jumbled letters can be difficult to absorb. In an analysis of more than 24 million article titles and 18 million article abstracts published between 1950 and 2019, a group led by Zoe Doubleday, an ecologist at the University of South Australia, and statistician Adrian Barnett, from Queensland University of Technology, found a 10-time increase in acronym use in abstracts and a 3.4-time increase in titles. The pair also identified 1,112,345 unique acronyms in the corpus they analyzed, but only 2,000 were used regularly. The majority (79%) appeared less than 10 times.
Too much jargon can hamper effective communication among researchers, isolating them in bubbles and preventing collaboration, says Finatto of UFRGS
Wordy sentences, jargon, and acronyms can also affect citations. “This makes sense, as in order to have impact, other researchers need to be able to see and recognize a paper’s contributions, and this is only possible if they are able to read and understand it,” write Doubleday and Barnett. The abstract is especially important, as it is typically the most frequently read section of a paper, alongside the title.
Recent research has shown that papers with concise titles and abstracts and familiar words are cited more often, while the use of technical jargon in the title and abstract leads to fewer citations. “While it’s true that some studies have found that simpler titles and abstracts correlate with more citations, it’s still too early to establish a cause-and-effect relationship,” notes Rode. “Be it as it may, researchers would do well to write as clearly as possible and avoid unnecessary jargon and acronyms.”
“Science is a complex process, and each field will naturally develop terms of its own,” wrote Wang, a coauthor of the paper in Scientometrics. However, argues Thompson, “this does not justify the continuing trend that we have shown.” The comprehensibility of scientific texts is also important in light of the recent controversy regarding the reproducibility of experiments, he says. “Reproducibility requires that findings can be verified independently. To achieve this, reporting of methods and results must be sufficiently understandable.”
Finatto, at UFRGS, says it is not a matter of doing away with jargon altogether—jargon develops naturally in the process of doing science and creating new ideas and concepts. “The problem is too much or unnecessary jargon, especially in scientific papers, which are the means through which ideas and findings are shared among peers,” he says. He continues: “In today’s multidisciplinary science scene, this can hamper effective communication among researchers in different fields, isolating them in bubbles and thus preventing collaboration.”
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