At the time that Cat’s Cradle was published in 1963, the novel’s author, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote, “any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.” However, as a fresh graduate student acknowledging that research papers can be a nightmare to read, it’s hard for me to imagine how the public, yet alone a preadolescent, can possibly understand the difficult prose in today’s scientific articles.
Some have suggested that scientific literature has become increasingly less accessible, largely due to the division of science into sub-disciplines, each imposing their own dialect. The language of science is already sufficiently technical, but the overuse of specialized terms and acronyms has rendered scientific papers unnecessarily confusing for many. Indeed, with the increasing balkanization of science, even scientists from neighboring fields have trouble understanding their peers. Despite an increasing complexity, peer-reviewed publications remain intrinsic to the sharing of results and scientific progress. It is clear then that the excessive use of confusing and highly specialized language has a direct impact on the comprehensibility and ultimately accessibility of science. But are research articles inherently difficult or can their complexity be minimized or even avoided?
Linda Cooper, a professor at McGill University, is one of the many who advocates for a paradigm shift in how research is communicated in publications. She teaches young researchers how to write comprehensible articles and firmly believes that scientific papers should, and can be, written simply and clearly. According to her, most scientists can learn how to write if they follow courses that teach them how to do so. While writing about research is not an easy task, the additional effort put into writing clearly and precisely is beneficial for both the researcher and the reader.
Cooper stresses that “it is important to remember that the whole research process is only truly completed once the results are published, read and ultimately understood.” This is particularly relevant when science and technology are becoming more pertinent to public policy and dependent upon publicly-financed government programs. In other words, research needs to be understood by a broad audience to allow policy makers to make informed decisions. Scientific progress would also benefit from effective and clear manuscripts, as it increases opportunities for collaboration between disciplines.“It is important to remember that the whole research process is only truly completed once the results are published, read and ultimately understood.”
Importantly, articles written in a more natural style would help convey the significance of, and excitement behind the research. This is specifically applicable to research conducted at the taxpayer’s expense. The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s social sensation illustrates this perfectly.
Hadfield has captured the power of social media to spark new public interest in space exploration. Using his Twitter feed and camera, he has made the deepest beauty of space accessible to thousands of individuals. This is particularly important considering the recent closure of the NASA space program in relation to decreasing public interest in space exploration. Closer to home, the Canadian Space Agency is currently struggling with a 10% budget cut and the premature departure of its president, Steve McLean. Hadfield’s social triumph has boosted astronauts to receive social media training to accompany their technical and scientific skills.
On the other hand, some scientists remain barely involved with press releases about their work. Patrick Keeling, a professor at the University of British Columbia, believes that this can have disastrous consequences as mass media has a tendency to accentuate news stories. The mass media can also misinterpret the importance behind funding basic research. “If we don’t advocate for curiosity-driven basic research”, Keeling said, “can we expect the public to support it?”
Science, no matter how complicated, should then be communicated and explained to the satisfaction of the average individual. This is easier said than done. While an image is worth a thousand words, it does not convey the significance of scientific results, nor does a Tweet on the internet. Scientists are limited to scholarly articles as a way to transmit their research. But it remains unclear if scientists should be writing for the general public, scientists in adjacent fields, or a handful of specialists working on the same pathway or molecule.
The increasing pressure from the public for free access to scholarly articles highlights the demand for journals targeting both the specialist and the educated general reader. The White House has recently decided to make publicly funded research and articles openly available within a year. Similarly, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has made amendments to its Open Access Policy in January 2013, mandating that CIHR-funded research be freely available within a year of publication. However, making articles merely available does not make them accessible if their language is impenetrable.
The editors of the international journal Science recognized the issue back in 2007. Many readers confessed that they rarely read papers outside their field or even read beyond the abstract, which triggered the development of the “author’s summary experiment.” To limit the use of unfamiliar jargon and increase accessibility, the journal asked authors to contribute a non-technical, one-page summary explaining their results and their relevance to other fields of study. Author’s summaries were included with two research articles in every issue published from November 2 to December 7, 2007. The experiment was well received, where 75% of responders had read the summary, out of which 25% to 35% had read the entire article. In sharp contrast, less than 10% of readers thought the summaries were too simplistic or even wasteful. However, while improving the value of the journal, the summaries substantially increased its size and cost, as each summary roughly required a surplus of 20 hours from the journal’s staff. Although attractive, the lay abstracts were not practical. Scientists do not always have time to write an additional page and they may even introduce further confusion to the increasingly large and complex library of publications. Subtle nuances between manuscripts could easily arise and researchers may fear that the information is oversimplified or inaccurate. It would be much more practical for scientists to learn how to write efficiently and clearly rather than write an additional summary.
Many other journals have tried to improve the readability of articles by including bullet-point summaries and linking online papers to internet glossaries. However, these approaches usually have limited impact. On the other hand, the author’s summary experiment revealed that articles were more accessible to a larger audience when they were accompanied by a clarified summary. Accordingly, addressing factors such as writing style could significantly improve the readability and comprehensibility of scientific articles. But can scientists be held accountable for their poor writing skills? Writing classes aren’t typically part of standard scientific training and most researchers do not receive appropriate guidance for comprehensible and effective writing. While the Office of English Language and Writing Support (ELWS) at the University of Toronto offers graduate students with advanced training in academic writing and speaking, these courses are not mandatory. Without proper guidance, young scientists often inherit their bad habits from their mentors or from previous publications that they use as models. As such, they are doomed to fall in a perpetuating cycle of poor writing. The issue can be even worse when English is not the investigator’s first language. Although less than 15% of the world’s population speaks English, of which only 5% are native speakers, English remains the selected language of science. While the use of English as the universal language of science allows the scientific community to unite across the world, it also induces additional challenges to the majority of non-native speakers of English. The linguistic imbalance is another factor adding to the complex problem behind communicating science in a clear and approachable manner.
Several language experts have proposed different approaches to tackle the issue behind accessible science articles. They believe scientists can make their research accessible to a wider public given proper structuring and revising techniques. Linguists have recommended writing the abstract first as it represents a simple outline of the article. As such, researchers can quickly identify the focus of their article and write in a clear and logical fashion. Similarly, authors are asked to focus their attention on the expectations of the readers. The structure of a sentence influences the interpretation of the information. For example, readers usually pay less attention to information that comes between the subject and the verb. Importantly, researchers are criticized for overusing specialized terms, abbreviations, nominalizations and passive voice. Researchers are afraid to disregard convention when they really should exercise judgment rather than compliance. The active voice should be employed when it offers clarity to the article.
So, I return to the original question: can scientific articles be made more accessible? Surely writing workshops can improve the quality of scientific articles sufficiently enough to lower the accessibility barrier of science. However, it’s unlikely that we will observe a drastic change in the foreseeable future if such classes aren’t mandatory during graduate studies. As such, I propose that the scientific community focus on making, at the very least, the abstract of their articles clear and comprehensible. Abstracts are typically the first body of writing to be read, if not the only, before readers move on to the other sections of the article. It is thus fundamental to have an accessible abstract. For the time being, I’ll continue to believe that I speak three distinct languages: French, English, and the ever so confusing language of science.
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