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jimmydasaint

Why Are Scientific Papers Written Like Gobbledeygook?

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On researching and following up some of the links posted in this Forum, I come across papers that are written in a way that is impenetrable to the casually interested. I will accept that papers are written for fellow specialists who understand the terminology. However, why write the papers in such a mangled and high-fangled way? I am as guilty as this as anyone else. During the writing of a paper, my supervisor changed the words of my original paper to make it more 'high' sounding and insisted I use the word 'moeity' instead of one of a pair of molecules and 'ablate' instead of 'broken down'.

 

Being as dumb as an ox (and twice as ugly) I did not know the meaning of moeity until I finished the paper. At the end I was obliged to end in the customary way to appeal to funding bodies: 'but more enquiry is required to confirm these findings'.

 

The best papers I have read go out of their way to explain the results and conclusions in a readable and simple way. The best seminar I ever attended used a few sheets of acetate on an overhead to explain the research in a clear and comprehensible manner. It received a cheer and enthusiastic applause from the audience instead of the usual smattering of thanks at these occasions.

 

Are scientific papers written for grammatical and syntactic eloquence or to allow research to be reproducible and appreciated by others?

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To jimmy

 

I applaud your post. I too, find it utterly reprehensible the way so many scientific papers are written in a way to make them almost incomprehensible.

 

I have been known, on occasion, to go to the science library, and uplift the appropriate science dictionaries, and sit down with a paper to translate it. Literally!

 

When I have spent an enormous amount of time rewriting the paper in language that can be understood, I re-read it and nail down the points that I need.

 

All of which is utterly unnecessary if the damn writers in the first place exercised a little care in using good and simple English. I am not sure why they do not. Something to do with the need to impress everyone with their grasp of jargon! The jargon is definitely not required. I can always find simple English words or phrases to replace the jargon. Once I have determined from the appropriate dictionary what the jargon word means.

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Yeah just got a similar question today on science blogs, about the interactions between scientist and their public.

 

http://scienceblogs.com/grrlscientist/2008/08/london_science_blogging_questi.php

 

Its sad that researchers still tend to use the old way of doing things in a modern world, A reseacher will work in his lab and write out points in a book, in some language only understandable to him, then come up with a formal report, give it to some friends to review, to make sure the language demostrates not what he has found by his knowledge in the subject (promoting his ego) haters will refuse to publish his papers, but friends will push for publishing in major journals (which is sad for new researchers wishing to grab hold of some of the publishing fame of the elites). After a years wait, the review is finally accepted and published in a major journal. How rediculous is that!

 

By contrast, dell is planning on releasing its new under laptop or firefox is working on a new concept for web browsing (aurora) just go to their blog, your will read live stories about their concept, design and implementation as it happens (an example of people who are proud of what they do and do it for the public not just for their ego). To me this is the main reason why the public is more fun of industries like the IT industry, the film industry (you can follow the production of a film) etc.

 

But for medical researchers, you will only hear about something when discussions about the cost have been finalized and the language with which the public recieves this is not something they can understand unless you study the subject! Another reason why you can become a computer progammer by hobby and it can take you a matter of months to start written comfortable programms but a 'scientific researcher' never, you must learn the jargon [reasons why i have a mixed love / hate relationship with immunologist for tarnishing molecular biology]. Things seriously have to change

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I have been known, on occasion, to go to the science library, and uplift the appropriate science dictionaries, and sit down with a paper to translate it. Literally!

 

When I have spent an enormous amount of time rewriting the paper in language that can be understood, I re-read it and nail down the points that I need.

 

I'm curious to know if this results in an appreciably longer or shorter text...?

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its only gobbledegook if you don't know the background, and if you don't know the background you'd have no real hope of understanding it even if you did know what the words meant.

 

a science paper isn't going to include an entire field from the ground up just to discuss some small phenomenon.

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Exactly. It makes perfect sense to people who specialize in that area. Usually the point of the paper is to point out something new, some previously unknown detail or something which adds to the existing body of evidence in some interesting way. It is not intended as a introductory class to the layperson who has zero understanding of the field.

 

Do you think papers on new complex math theories should begin with an explanation of 1+1? No? Then why do you want this for science papers?

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On researching and following up some of the links posted in this Forum, I come across papers that are written in a way that is impenetrable to the casually interested. I will accept that papers are written for fellow specialists who understand the terminology. However, why write the papers in such a mangled and high-fangled way? I am as guilty as this as anyone else. During the writing of a paper, my supervisor changed the words of my original paper to make it more 'high' sounding and insisted I use the word 'moeity' instead of one of a pair of molecules and 'ablate' instead of 'broken down'.
The main objective of writing articles for publication is clarity, but this invoves sub-criteria; concision and precision.

 

'One of a pair of molecules' = 5 words, Moeity = 1 word. 'Broken down' = 2 words, Ablate = 1 word, so the use of these words increase concision.

 

Precision is also important, particularly in more theoretical areas. Once published, your peers will be waiting to pull the paper apart. Imprecise language provides them with more oportunities to do that than is warrented by the subject matter and a lot of time can be wasted re-explaining your meaning to people who got the wrong end of the stick.

 

You have to remember also who the target audience is. It is usually others involved in the same area of research, which is why papers get published in particular journals. But the most basic consideration of the audience is that they are at least as qualified as you (although not necessarily in your particular field). So, it's ok to use words that are generally understood, but not words or jargon that are specific to your field (without explanation).

 

Are scientific papers written for grammatical and syntactic eloquence or to allow research to be reproducible and appreciated by others?
They are written to disseminate information accurately, precisely and concisely, to people who are qualified.

 

There are examples of overblown pomposity out there, but they tend to be as frowned upon as sloppy, casual prose (examples of which can also be found). As a general rule, scientific articles aim to provide maximum information, as precisely as possible, using the fewest words possible.

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Exactly. It makes perfect sense to people who specialize in that area. Usually the point of the paper is to point out something new, some previously unknown detail or something which adds to the existing body of evidence in some interesting way. It is not intended as a introductory class to the layperson who has zero understanding of the field.

 

Do you think papers on new complex math theories should begin with an explanation of 1+1? No? Then why do you want this for science papers?

 

IMHO I think that papers are writen for people with a scientific background in the same area of study. OK, fine. However, even if you are in the same field of study, e.g. Cell Biology, it is the job of the author to make his subject absolutely clear and link it to what is going on in the rest of the subject. I am not asking authors to appeal to laymen, that is not the purpose of these journals. However, the primary purpose is communication and overblown language used when it is unnecessary does not help this purpose.

 

For example, I can say that "a protein with its partner protein molecule sticks out into the surrounding tissue fluid' and every biologists is absolutely clear on that point. However, on writing a paper, the scientist may feel compelled to write: 'the protein moeity is protuberant into the extracellular fluid'. All of a sudden, it is not quite clear what is meant unless you refer to phrases before and after this sentence.

 

Glider:

You have to remember also who the target audience is. It is usually others involved in the same area of research, which is why papers get published in particular journals. But the most basic consideration of the audience is that they are at least as qualified as you (although not necessarily in your particular field). So, it's ok to use words that are generally understood, but not words or jargon that are specific to your field (without explanation).

 

I believe that you have to appeal to fundergraduates, final year graduate students and postgraduate students. Your work should be accessible to these paople to give them a feel for the field of study. Making the papers impenetrable to these people will not help. You can contrast the language of specialist papers to grant proposals and will find that it is often different because the scientist must explain his material to possible non-specialists in the Funding Bodies. I agree with you completely about jargon. Jargon destroys the fun of reading about research.

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I think this is quite a tricky subject. It is something I am thinking about right now in writing my Thesis and (hopefully) a paper or two. How much background is needed? Some words may have a special meaning in one field and not in another or could mean something completely different.

 

Another big point is that many of the readers may not have English as their first language. As such, I would tend to avoid any "big words" that are not part of the common scientific language of the particular area.

 

Scientific witting is essential to science. The whole point of scientific writing to transmit the results you have acquired. It should not be an exercise in "showing off" or trying to make yourself look more intelligent by baffling readers. If people can't understand it then you have not done your job.

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I do agree with jimmy in that sometimes terminology is used in manuscripts that seem a little "too educated" but the audience should have a handle on basic science and be able to decipher the context. That being said, a little basic information may be required in some instances. The company I work for has both chemists and biologists that work together and write papers to be submitted to either biological or chemical publications. Therefore, you may have a chemist reading a paper that was written by biologists and vice versa so a little basic info in the background is needed, as it is intended. This, I have found, is especially important in pharmaceuticals as people are trying to work out the details of new compounds for new drugs. As a cell biologist, I am given many chemistry and biochemistry based papers so that we may better elucidate the pathways of our compounds.

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I agree with most points said earlier in this thread. I could start rambling about the papers I read (I hate them all for their language, I'm an engineer, not a student in English language).

 

But my main point is:

 

concision

 

Concision (ffs, I had to Google that one, only 645,000 hits, which is nothing in Google) is a concept from the previous century when papers were printed and then shipped across the world in massive hardcover books. One year of a magazine could be 50 centimeters thick, printed on the thinnest paper available. Reducing length while keeping all information was a matter of money. These days, with youtube videos crisscrossing the web, who cares about a word extra? Honestly... we measure data in Terabytes now.

 

So:

-Make paragraphs. Scientific text has the longest paragraphs in the world, except for Franz Kafka who has created as many paragraphs as he has written books...

 

-Use simple language, even if it means using 5 words in stead of 1. It's easier to read.

 

-List things at the end: abbreviations, really difficult words (unavoidable), symbols.

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the thing is, simpler words tend to be ambiguous, have multiple meanings and so on. so, you lose precision. the words used were invented for a reason.

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Ok, then how do dictionaries explain these words? They too use simpler words... Or a synonym, which is, when you look it up, explained in simpler words. Synonyms in a (good) dictionary do not refer back and forth to each other, but eventually it is explained in simple language.

 

Therefore it is now proven that it is possible to use simple language.

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Ok, then how do dictionaries explain these words? They too use simpler words... Or a synonym, which is, when you look it up, explained in simpler words. Synonyms in a (good) dictionary do not refer back and forth to each other, but eventually it is explained in simple language.

Except that dictionaries are not technical resources, and will usually give common usage meanings for words, rather than the precise scientific meaning which is used within the particular discipline that the paper is intended for.

 

Which completely defeats your aims.

 

Therefore it is now proven that it is possible to use simple language.

I think you might want to look up "proof".

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I'd rather they used 1 word instead of 5, if I've got 10 papers to read each week (which is quite a low number tbh), and they're all "just a bit longer" then that could add alot of time whereas I could invest a bit of time learning a few new words and then save all that time each week... I know which I'd rather do...

 

That's ignoring how other terms can be ambiguous.

 

Coincidence is always a term I like to pull out, it's meaning in physics is very different to it's meaning in every day language, it's modern usage is a distortion of it's original meaning as is decimate which actually means "remove/kill one in ten". So in most cases the use of the word coincidence as you'd use it every day cannot be used in a physics paper.

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I agree with most points said earlier in this thread. I could start rambling about the papers I read (I hate them all for their language, I'm an engineer, not a student in English language).

 

But my main point is:

 

 

 

Concision (ffs, I had to Google that one, only 645,000 hits, which is nothing in Google) is a concept from the previous century when papers were printed and then shipped across the world in massive hardcover books. One year of a magazine could be 50 centimeters thick, printed on the thinnest paper available. Reducing length while keeping all information was a matter of money. These days, with youtube videos crisscrossing the web, who cares about a word extra? Honestly... we measure data in Terabytes now.

 

So:

-Make paragraphs. Scientific text has the longest paragraphs in the world, except for Franz Kafka who has created as many paragraphs as he has written books...

 

-Use simple language, even if it means using 5 words in stead of 1. It's easier to read.

 

-List things at the end: abbreviations, really difficult words (unavoidable), symbols.

 

 

Paper journals still exist, and it costs money to publish.

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a protein with its partner protein molecule sticks out into the surrounding tissue fluid

 

Actually, to me this does not make much sense.

What is meant a partner protein? Are you talking about two proteins interacting with each other? The quartiary structure of a protein?

 

What sticks out? A hydrophilic part of a membrane anchored protein, for instance? The whole protein with an anchor on the outside or inside?

 

Tissue fluid? Sure that you are talking about a tissue? Or the extracellular matrix? Or doesn't it matter at all because you just mean that it is outside the cell? And again are you talking about two proteins that cross the membrane (or are actually anchored to the surface of the cell) or only one of them?

 

In any case this phrase

the protein moeity is protuberant into the extracellular fluid
does not equal the above one.

 

It contains more information though, namely that only a part of the protein (moiety) protrudes outside the cell, implying at least a part of it being located in the cell membrane (in contrast from being completely located outside the cell).

By adding the information about what type of protein we are talking about (e.g. ABC transporter, S-layer, what ever) it would be pretty clear.

 

It is all about being concise and to avoid ambiguity. But then think Glider has basically said everything that is to say about it and I am just being redundant.

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I like this thread!

 

CharonY I nearly fell of my chair when i read the first statement which even to is pure rubish!

 

in the ITC/Web developers/Computer science world, they have big words too, they have big concepts too, but just follow a development blog and you could learn alot about web technologies or even programming without using a dictionary. you dont see this crap on good bloggs,

 

Another person mentioned simpler words have a much more broader meaning than big words. I'll like to know what you call simple and big word and what parameters you use to qualify this! Its not about big words here, its about how those words are put together to make something that is readible and understandable to a common user with just simple interest in the topic.

 

If 'protein' is a simple word, as you can see as rightly pointed by CharonY that sentence just does not make any sense

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A programming blog is NOT a computer science journal, the target audience is completely different.

 

Pop sci and science blogs are not written the same as papers in journals and that often leads to alot of confusion...

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There are many affects at work. First papers are written for a target audience with editors often experts in their fields. Based on that, you don't wish to treat the editor like a layman, since it is up to him to grant you this privilege. He might take it personally or may even assume you are not qualified to publish. There is a snob requirement. Say you you went to a star trek convention and didn't speak Klingon properly, there will be a certain reaction by the experts who will dwell on your poor accent and forget what you are trying to say.

 

Another consideration has to do with the degree of innovation. If you got controlled fusion to work, you could present anyway you want, including stick figure drawings, since the data and accomplishment speaks for itself. But if you tweak the knob a new way, you got to fluff. It is analogous to a woman putting on make-up. The prettier she is the less she will need to use.

 

The third consideration is, presenting ideas in the simplest terms is harder to do. It is like the difference between describing an event in one sentence or one paragraph. You would need to be able to present complicated things in a simple way that will inform all levels of audience. It is not easy. That is why text book authors are sort of a rare breed.

 

The fourth has to do with scientists not being the best writers. They are not English majors who specialize more in writing. Ask any technical university about this concern. Technical students often avoid enough training to spend more time on their interests. So there is often a cookie cutter approach to technical writing with set templates to bridge the gap. The templates are often more concise and clear that what you normally might get.

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Glider:

 

I believe that you have to appeal to fundergraduates, final year graduate students and postgraduate students.

I don't see why. These are all transitional stages; lay people training to become professionals and as such, are not the target audience.

 

Given the role of undergraduates (learning), I would have thought that the onus was on them to learn enough about their area so that papers relevent to their area become clear to them. In short, it is for undergraduates to grow, learn and adapt, not for researchers to 'dumb down' journal articles to cater to them. How would that encourage them to learn?

 

Your work should be accessible to these paople to give them a feel for the field of study. Making the papers impenetrable to these people will not help
Undergraduates are not the target audience and publishing journal articles is not all about them. It is their role to learn enough to be fluent in their area. However, research papers are not written deliberately to be impenetrable to them. As I said, they are written for people as qualified as the author. It is not the author's fault that undergraduates aren't and it is the whole purpose of being an undergraduate to become as qualified as these authors.

 

 

You can contrast the language of specialist papers to grant proposals and will find that it is often different because the scientist must explain his material to possible non-specialists in the Funding Bodies. I agree with you completely about jargon. Jargon destroys the fun of reading about research.
Yes, grant proposals are different and serve a different purpose. That is why they are written differently. They are designed to give a brief and comparatively superficial impression of the proposed research to a non-specialist purse-holder (whose main interest will be deliverables anyway).

 

the thing is, simpler words tend to be ambiguous, have multiple meanings and so on. so, you lose precision. the words used were invented for a reason.
My point exactly.

 

I agree with most points said earlier in this thread. I could start rambling about the papers I read (I hate them all for their language, I'm an engineer, not a student in English language).

 

But my main point is:

 

Concision (ffs, I had to Google that one, only 645,000 hits, which is nothing in Google)

There you go, you just leaned a new word. Now, when you see it again, you will know instantly what is meant and the author won't have to write "The process of presenting as much information in the fewest words possible" just to make it clear to you.

 

...is a concept from the previous century when papers were printed and then shipped across the world in massive hardcover books. One year of a magazine could be 50 centimeters thick, printed on the thinnest paper available. Reducing length while keeping all information was a matter of money.
Not really. It's more a matter of clarity. You should try reading undergraduate essays. The arguments they are presenting are too often buried in superfluous text and they can take a page to present a point that would be better presented in a few lines. It takes a long time to work out what it is they are trying to say, even when what they are saying is correct.

 

As I have said, this is a part of the purpose of their being undergraduates, to learn how to express themselves and their arguments clearly.

 

These days, with youtube videos crisscrossing the web, who cares about a word extra? Honestly... we measure data in Terabytes now.
But nobody wants to read terrabytes of data. You will find, should you ever choose to write an article for a journal, that journals have word limits for articles, whether they are to be published online or not. Rambling and long-winded articles tend not to get published.

 

When writing an article, the onus is on the author to make their points clear, not on the reader to have to trawl through pages of verbiage in order to find the point. When engaged in research, researchers have to read many papers. It eases the process if the authors of those papers just get to the point and present only what is necessary, clearly and precisely.

 

So:

-Make paragraphs. Scientific text has the longest paragraphs in the world, except for Franz Kafka who has created as many paragraphs as he has written books...

Paragraphs are used appropriately. If you mean the spaces between them, then it's usually the publishers that limit them to indents to save page space. It does tend to contract things, but you get used to it.

 

-Use simple language, even if it means using 5 words in stead of 1. It's easier to read.
It also introduces ambiguity, which is a bad thing. It would be better for people to learn how to read in their field. This is particularly good for students, who should be encouraged to grow. It would be a bad thing to encourage authors to dumb things down for them.

 

By the way, 'instead' is one word, not two.

 

-List things at the end: abbreviations, really difficult words (unavoidable), symbols.
Listing things at the end would make it harder to navigate. A naive reader would constantly be turning to the index. It is better, particularly with abbreviations, to write the full term in the first instance, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses, and to use the abbreviation thereafter. For example, "levels of salivary SIgA were measured using Enzyme-Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay (ELISA). Results of the ELISA show....". That way, naive readers have all they need in that sentence, without having to turn to the back to find out what ELISA means.

 

Anyway, a lot of this just sounds like "Awww...but I don'wanna learn the big words...". Well, it's all about the learning. We sometimes have students here who complain about the same thing; 'Why do these writers make it so hard for us to understand stuff?' The logic that blames the qualified for the ignorance of the unqualified seems strange to me. Surely these people know why they are students?

Edited by Glider

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In most of the papers I read if it is in a more general journal they will give non-common abbreviations both in the abstaract and the first time they are used...

 

blah blah Quantum Dot (QD) blah

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There you go, you just leaned a new word. Now, when you see it again, you will know instantly what is meant and the author won't have to write "The process of presenting as much information in the fewest words possible" just to make it clear to you.

 

The author might write "brief and precise" though, which is merely 2 extra words. While reading 2 extra words might take me an approximate 1 additional second, looking up a word takes me perhaps up to a minute. I totally agree that in some cases where clarity suffers from the use of simpler words, it should be avoided. But in many cases it's a matter of sounding more posh, expensive or even just a matter of a professor who cannot pass on a draft paper as a final version without changing a few words.

 

Not really. It's more a matter of clarity. You should try reading undergraduate essays. The arguments they are presenting are too often buried in superfluous text and they can take a page to present a point that would be better presented in a few lines. It takes a long time to work out what it is they are trying to say, even when what they are saying is correct.

 

I fear we're not on the same topic here. I don't mean that articles should be filled up with irrelevant blabla. I mean that it generally takes less words to combine several sentences into one huge one. To cut these sentences up again into shorter sentences means you need a few extra words. It makes it easier to read (in a way children's books are easier) but longer... without changing the information. Also you can use "brief and precise" in stead of "concise". This will not actually cost you a lot of time to read (2 extra words)... but it might save someone else 1 minute.

 

As I have said, this is a part of the purpose of their being undergraduates, to learn how to express themselves and their arguments clearly.

Agreed.

 

But nobody wants to read terrabytes of data. You will find, should you ever choose to write an article for a journal, that journals have word limits for articles, whether they are to be published online or not. Rambling and long-winded articles tend not to get published.

Yup. Read the above reaction. I just compare 2 articles with exactly the same info, one with simpler language which, I maintain, is possible.

 

When writing an article, the onus is on the author to make their points clear, not on the reader to have to trawl through pages of verbiage in order to find the point. When engaged in research, researchers have to read many papers. It eases the process if the authors of those papers just get to the point and present only what is necessary, clearly and precisely.

I think my point, together with many other's, is that we are researchers who are reading papers, and we aren't able to find the point of these papers easily, because we have trouble going through them because of the language, not the science in it.

 

Paragraphs are used appropriately. If you mean the spaces between them, then it's usually the publishers that limit them to indents to save page space. It does tend to contract things, but you get used to it.

A paragraph ends with an empty line. I don't see any reason why digital papers in .pdf are contracted. they can do it for the paper versions as much as they like.

 

It also introduces ambiguity, which is a bad thing. It would be better for people to learn how to read in their field. This is particularly good for students, who should be encouraged to grow. It would be a bad thing to encourage authors to dumb things down for them.

I am pretty much at home with words in my own field, just having trouble with the most expensive Scrabble words in English which happens to be my 2nd language.

 

By the way, 'instead' is one word, not two.

Thanks, but if you're going to improve people's English here, you'd better quit your other job(s). The sms-language that is sometimes used on this forum is worse than mine... Although it can be argued that it is brief (and perhaps in a few lucky cases also precise).

 

Listing things at the end would make it harder to navigate. A naive reader would constantly be turning to the index. It is better, particularly with abbreviations, to write the full term in the first instance, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses, and to use the abbreviation thereafter. For example, "levels of salivary SIgA were measured using Enzyme-Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay (ELISA). Results of the ELISA show....". That way, naive readers have all they need in that sentence, without having to turn to the back to find out what ELISA means.

I think it's best to do both. I never read entire articles, but I browse them for data. I need numbers, because I am an engineer. Often 75% of an article is totally irrelevant to me. If abbreviations are hidden in that part, it takes a significant amount of time to dig them out.

 

Anyway, a lot of this just sounds like "Awww...but I don'wanna learn the big words...". Well, it's all about the learning. We sometimes have students here who complain about the same thing; 'Why do these writers make it so hard for us to understand stuff?' The logic that blames the qualified for the ignorance of the unqualified seems strange to me. Surely these people know why they are students?

I'm fine with studying engineering, even other fields. I am just pretty bad at linguistics, and indeed, it's a matter of "Awww... but I don't wanna... I always hated to study other languages, which is indeed the reason I chose engineering as my field.

 

I am glad we understand each other perfectly. It all comes down to having totally different expectations of papers, and also different reasons for reading them. You read them completely, I never do. You're probably a native English speaker, I am not. :D

 

But I love the discussion. Apologies for length.

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You only look the word up once... you might have to add 1second to your reading time hundreds of times...

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