Scientists are used to communicating with their lab, classmates, and more broadly with a scientific audience. But have you ever tried to explain your project, or any specific scientific concept to friends and relatives from a non-scientific background? If yes, you will probably have noticed that some concepts that seem easy to understand for you might be more challenging for this non-scientific audience. One of the most important reasons is the use of scientific jargon, i.e. “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group”, or in this case the specific terminology used in the scientific community.

The more we work on a topic, the more we become experts about it. And the more we become experts about it, the harder it gets to remember what we knew before we started and to adapt our communication accordingly. This is even more difficult as the scientific community is used to an extremely precise and specific way to communicate, which differs significantly from everyday communication.

While the impact of the use of terminology may not be too important at a personal scale, it is of utmost importance that scientists are mindful of not using jargon when addressing a broader audience. By improving our communication, we improve the public understanding of science, and encourage responses that are more scientifically favourable and reasonable. This has shown to be of particular importance for vaccination amid the SARS-CoV2 pandemics: effective communication surrounding the mechanism of action of the vaccine and the proof of its efficacy had to be delivered to the population in order to achieve a higher rate of vaccination.

On another level, communication is essential in the context of healthcare when delivering a diagnosis, or counselling a patient, that involves in many cases making life-changing decisions. Several studies have shown that patients are very likely to misunderstand their medical situation and their options due to the use of insufficiently explained scientific jargon. A study by Charpentier et al. classified medical jargon in seven different forms: technical terminology (the use of highly technical terms such as “upper endoscopy”), acronyms and abbreviations, medical vernacular (words such as anemia, that may be familiar but not always well understood), medicalized English (words like progressive, impressive, positive/negative, that don’t have the same meaning in the medical field than in everyday life), unnecessary synonyms (such as ambulate, of erythema, that could easily be replaced by more common words), euphemisms, and judgmental jargon (such as failed treatment).

 So, how can scientists reduce the use of scientific terminology and promote a more effective communication? First of all, considering the audience we are addressing: what is their background knowledge? Second, limiting the use of specific terms, in particular  abbreviations, and explaining them in full details when necessary. Finally, making sure the audience understands and has a chance to ask any clarification questions that may be required.

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Johanne Audouze

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