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jimmydasaint

Why Are Scientific Papers Written Like Gobbledeygook?

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Also if you do not read the whole article it just means that you just need punctual information out of it and moreover the article is not precisely written for your field. But as mentioned already, the articles tend to be written for a specific audience, which usually can scan through papers in their field very quickly.

I read for instance both physical as well as biological papers (and unfortunately, some engineering as well, ugh). While I can easily scan through more than 100 biologicals per week (of course not reading word for word) I am stuck at a far lower rate for physical papers. Yet I do not expect them to dumb down their notations so that I can easily read them without trying very hard to remember calculus from past times the same way I would not want the biological papers to be able to explain things to a physicist. That is what textbooks are for.

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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.
True, in some cases. But to reinforce my point, the two words you use refer to brevity and precision and neither means concision. Only together do they broadly suggest concision and even then, you haqve introduced ambiguity and the possibility of misinterpretation. For example, 'Brief' in that context might be taken to imply 'superficial' where 'concise' certainly cannot.

 

 

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.
I agree, we're probably not on the same topic. I'm speaking from the perspective of one who has to read and write these articles, and (perhaps more pertinent) to teach others to do so (the latter is really the tricky part as standards of written English seem to fall year by year). But these articles are in a completely different area. I don't think I've ever seen an engineering article.

 

Agreed.
Cool & funky.

 

 

Yup. Read the above reaction. I just compare 2 articles with exactly the same info, one with simpler language which, I maintain, is possible.
I do take your point. Simplicity is an important part of writing articles, but there is a fine balance between keeping things simple and writing for children, which, as you acknowledge, would also increase the word count and (as I maintain) would introduce unacceptable levels of ambiguity. It is also very irritating to read. We do have to remember that the articles are targeted at other professionals in the area.

 

 

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.
If the articles are in English but your first language isn't English, then I can see how that might present problems. But that situation is not the fault of the authors. Seminal papers tend to get professionally translated for international publication though.

 

If I had to read papers in my area, but from a Spanish journal, I couldn't really complain that the Spanish authors were using tricky Spanish words. I would consider it my obligation to improve my Spanish vocabulary.

 

 

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.
Neither do I, but again, that's not down to the authors. That's down to the publishers.

 

 

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.
See above.

 

 

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).
I wouldn't dream of trying to improve people's English here. As you say, I would have to quit my other job (where I can actually make a difference). It's just a mix of facetiousness and habit on my part.

 

 

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.
Different fields and journals have different conventions for the layour and presentation of articles, even for referencing style.

 

 

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.
As Klaynos says, you only have to look up a word once. Thereafter, you'll never have trouble with it again. Consider it personal growth (as I tell my students).

 

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
Yes I do and yes I am. I have to read them completely, because in my case (I don't knnow about engineering) it's not just about knowing what the authors are presenting. It's about evaluating the authors' rationale and their methods and whether or not their conclusions are supported by their data and so-on. Critically evaluating the paper, as opposed to just absorbing it.

 

Understanding is good though. That, when all is said and done, is what it's all about.

 

 

But I love the discussion. Apologies for length.No worries. Good discussion. Apologies for concision :D (I have lectures to write).

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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?

 

I would never encourage any researcher to dumb down articles. However, I would demand from them to be absolutely clear in what they write. This means using less overblown and self-important terminology. You also have to cater to readers whose first language is not English.

 

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.

 

I agree that Undergraduates are not the target audience and need to learn to read these papers. As an undergraduate student I spent many hours in the Library reading papers cited from an original paper and then attended tutorials where we were assigned to a postdoctoral student in order to 'gut' the papers. It was surprising how many misconceptions there were even amongst the top students. Introducing a misconception is a dangerous thing to do in undergraduates (or even in students of any age).

 

I used a particularly poor sentence to try and elaborate on my point, which was rightly picked apart by others in the Thread, but I was initially going to paste in some text from a popular scientific journal which I found difficult to read and understand without a notebook to list the main points. Unfortunately, the computer was not cooperating with me that day.

 

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.

 

This point is obviously clear and I could not agree more with it. I would never ask anyone to use anything but the contracted form of the full phrase for ELISA.

 

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?

 

Not really. The world of Science seems to be full of people with ego. Scientific writing should not be there to pander to the ego of the writer so that he/she can show how clever he/she is, compared to the rest of us mere mortals. I can personally understand the writing quite easily by scanning, then reading in depth later. However, I am quite honest in disliking journals where an excess of jargon or high faluting language is used for the sake of it and where it does not clarify the main points that the author is trying to communicate. I call that poor communication.

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I would never encourage any researcher to dumb down articles. However, I would demand from them to be absolutely clear in what they write. This means using less overblown and self-important terminology. You also have to cater to readers whose first language is not English.
Why?

 

Would it be reasonable of me to ask a Spanish (or Greek, or Danish, or German etc.) author to modify their use of language so I could understand it?

 

Also, how? Is it for an author to guess the standard of English of a non-native speaker?

 

Not really. The world of Science seems to be full of people with ego. Scientific writing should not be there to pander to the ego of the writer so that he/she can show how clever he/she is, compared to the rest of us mere mortals. I can personally understand the writing quite easily by scanning, then reading in depth later. However, I am quite honest in disliking journals where an excess of jargon or high faluting language is used for the sake of it and where it does not clarify the main points that the author is trying to communicate. I call that poor communication.

The world is full of people with ego, that's a universal problem. I'm not sure how it would manifest in a journal article though. Jargon is universally discouraged (as I said in a previous post). Jargon tends to be made up short-hand, peculiar to a specific area, and so does not help with clarity.

 

As for 'highfalutin' language, I'm not entirely sure what that means. If an author uses English that is grammatically correct and terms that are recognised within the discipline (excluding jargon), then I'm not sure where the problem lies.

 

If I write a lecture (essentially the same in function; to disseminate information) describing the 'substantia gellatinosa as constituting laminae II & III of the the dorsal horn', is that pompous? Would it make the students' lives easier if I talked about 'The jelly-like stuff that makes up the second and third layers of the sticky-out, grey bits in the back part of the spinal cord'? Probably, in the short-term, but not in the long-term. 'Jelly-like substance' could describe snot. Substantia gellatinosa describes specifically the region in which primary afferent inhibition takes place.

 

If I talk about 'pain detectors' instead of 'nociceptors', is that more clear? It might appear so, superficially, but in fact it's completely misleading. The term 'Pain detectors' suggests that pain exists as an objective entity and that we have receptors to detect it. That's completely untrue. Pain and nociception are completely different things. It would not serve my purposes, or my students, to allow them to infer from my sloppy use of language that it was otherwise.

 

When writing about these things, I have to be specific. Specificity denies ambiguity. To be specific, I have to use the specific terms that are an accepted part of the discipline.

 

I could simplify the language easily, but so much would be lost. For example, I could say that action potentials (how would you simplify that term?) are sent along nerve fibres', or flow down nerve fibres, instead of 'action potentials are propagated along nerve fibres'. However, the first options ignore the fact that the movement of action potentials along a nerve fibre is an active process of propagation. It suggests they simply move down axons like a signal down a telephone line. Again, that's not true. You have to be specific if you want to be clear (and accurate).

 

In any case, I would suggest that as long as a writer is using correct grammar and conventional terminology (in whatever language they're writing), then any difficulty in understanding is not their problem.

 

The onus is]/i] on the author to make their meaning clear, but that is not to say that readers have no responsibility at all, do not need to make any effort, and have an innate right to just sit back and be spoon-fed 'Sesame Street Science'.

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'The jelly-like stuff that makes up the second and third layers of the sticky-out, grey bits in the back part of the spinal cord'?

 

:D:D:D:D:D:D

 

I always wanted to write goo or jelly-like into one of my papers but somehow I was always too cowardly. I think only the British get away with such kind of writing. But to make a point, the de facto science language is simply English. It is not my mother tongue either, but for all intent and purposes every author has to assume that the readers are fully fluent in English. I do have still colleagues, though that get panic attacks if they have to present a talk in international conferences due to the English speaking part...

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You also have to cater to readers whose first language is not English.

 

if they are in the relevant field and are reading scientific papers in english then their technical vocabulary is going to include any words they come across. if its not then they are probably going to have to learn it anyway.

 

the fact of the matter is that the words used are used for a reason. they describe some concept not easily expressed using simpler words. either because they are too ambiguous and have multiple meanings(which would likely be more confusing for a non-native speaker). if using simpler words were adequate THEN THEY WOULD BE USED.

 

i bet nobody complained when television or car were introduced to the language.

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I've a friend in Denmark, and most of their science courses are tuaght in Danish, but the advanced ones and most of the text books are in English...

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:D:D:D:D:D:D

 

I always wanted to write goo or jelly-like into one of my papers but somehow I was always too cowardly. I think only the British get away with such kind of writing. But to make a point, the de facto science language is simply English. It is not my mother tongue either, but for all intent and purposes every author has to assume that the readers are fully fluent in English. I do have still colleagues, though that get panic attacks if they have to present a talk in international conferences due to the English speaking part...

 

otoh, scientists will generally know scientific english.

 

If English isn't your first language, and given that you're a scientist, I'd actually assume that you'd be more likely to understand 'amorphic mass' than 'goo', 'protrusion' than 'sticky out bit' and even 'gelatinous' over 'jelly-like' (you'd've learnt 'gelatinous' in the lab, but unless you talk about food in english... anyhow, jelly is wobbly stuff in UK, and jam in US, so would be less clearer).

 

Which is probably a reason that science uses clear, unambiguous and non-colloquial (and thus somewhat jargony) terminology.

 

Would it be reasonable of me to ask a Spanish (or Greek, or Danish, or German etc.) author to modify their use of language so I could understand it?

 

Yes, if it was for an international audience. when you speak English to an international community, you're not speaking UK english or US english, you're speaking international English. Given that several other people have gone to the effort of learning an entirely different language so that they can speak with each other (and you), imo you should be expected to slightly modify your mother toungue to make it easyer for them.

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As for 'highfalutin' language, I'm not entirely sure what that means. If an author uses English that is grammatically correct and terms that are recognised within the discipline (excluding jargon), then I'm not sure where the problem lies.

 

So let's continue with writers using 'enhance' when they actually want to write 'increase'; 'prevarication' when they mean 'procrastination'; 'atavistic recidivism' when they mean to say 'high re-offending rates'; 'ameliorate' when they mean 'attenuate'; 'ablate' when they mean 'degraded by enzymes''.... I can see the consensus, sadly, is to continue with the status quo.

 

If I write a lecture (essentially the same in function; to disseminate information) describing the 'substantia gellatinosa as constituting laminae II & III of the the dorsal horn', is that pompous? Would it make the students' lives easier if I talked about 'The jelly-like stuff that makes up the second and third layers of the sticky-out, grey bits in the back part of the spinal cord'? Probably, in the short-term, but not in the long-term. 'Jelly-like substance' could describe snot. Substantia gellatinosa describes specifically the region in which primary afferent inhibition takes place.

 

Glider, I agree with your point about specificity in the context of what you have written. However, there may be inter-generational differences in approaches to understanding of text by students. I do see a difference in the present generation from my generation, with no Internet and 3 TV channels. As a teacher I use analogy and models quite often with High School students.

 

I would suggest that you use both examples as stated above; the first example helps with a general understanding in simple terms and the second gives specific terms which are required learning for the students who are lectured by you.

 

In any case, I would suggest that as long as a writer is using correct grammar and conventional terminology (in whatever language they're writing), then any difficulty in understanding is not their problem.

 

The onus is]/i] on the author to make their meaning clear, but that is not to say that readers have no responsibility at all, do not need to make any effort, and have an innate right to just sit back and be spoon-fed 'Sesame Street Science'.

 

I think I have said all I can about communication. If the consensus indicates that papers are mostly perfectly adequately written, I won't argue. So be it - the majority have spoken.

 

As for linguistic differences, I offer the following:

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis essentially consists of two distinct statements connecting the relation of thought and language. Whorf believes that humans may be able to think only about objects, processes, and conditions that have language associated with them (linguistic determinism). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also explains the relationship between different languages (French, English, German, Chinese, and so on) and thought.

 

Whorf demonstrated that culture is largely determined by language (linguistic relativity). Different cultures perceive the world in different ways (Chandler 1-2). Culturally essential objects, conditions, and processes usually are defined by a plethora of words, while things that cultures perceive as unimportant are usually assigned one or two words. Whorf developed this theory while studying the Hopi Indian tribe. Whorf was amazed that the Hopi language has no words for past, present, and future (Campbell 3). The Hopi have only one word for flying objects (Hayes et al. 96). A dragonfly, an airplane, and a pilot are defined using the same word. Whorf questioned whether or not the Hopi view the world differently than western peoples.

 

http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/4110/whorf.html

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I can see the consensus, sadly, is to continue with the status quo.

 

Why did you say "status quo" when you could have said "presently accepted way of doing things?"

 

 

 

If the consensus indicates that papers are mostly perfectly adequately written, I won't argue.

Why did you say "consensus" when you could have said the "general overall acceptance by the population being considered?"

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So let's continue with writers using 'enhance' when they actually want to write 'increase'; 'prevarication' when they mean 'procrastination'; 'atavistic recidivism' when they mean to say 'high re-offending rates'; 'ameliorate' when they mean 'attenuate'; 'ablate' when they mean 'degraded by enzymes''.... I can see the consensus, sadly, is to continue with the status quo.
If you find writers who do that, then they are bad writers because the words in each of the pairs you present mean different things:

 

Enhance = to increase the quality of (i.e. improve) Vs. Increase = to make greater in size/volume/amplitude etc.; Prevarication = to avoid giving a direct answer Vs. Procrastination = to delay an action; Attenuate = make weaker Vs. Ameliorate = make better.

 

If writers are using these words interchangeably, then that's simply bad English and a strong argument for specificity in writing to be more strongly encouraged (e.g. by teachers and reviewing editors). Was that your point? However, if they are using the words correctly, then they are simply being precise and saving at least one word, per example.

 

There are bad writers, nobody is denying that. But for them to improve, it's not enough to say 'you are a bad writer'. There also needs to be a standard that can be presented as an ideal and to which they can be directed. This is the source of the status quo you mention. It's there for a reason.

 

Glider, I agree with your point about specificity in the context of what you have written. However, there may be inter-generational differences in approaches to understanding of text by students. I do see a difference in the present generation from my generation, with no Internet and 3 TV channels. As a teacher I use analogy and models quite often with High School students.
Yes, there are changes, and language itself changes over time. I have no problem with that. But, when writing a paper or a lecture, I have to conform to (and teach my students) what is correct now. I have no doubt that by the time they are writing papers themselves, things will be different (at least slightly), but I can adapt.

 

I would suggest that you use both examples as stated above; the first example helps with a general understanding in simple terms and the second gives specific terms which are required learning for the students who are lectured by you.
I do use both examples. The term itself (short) and the explanation of it in simple terms (long) to teach them what it means and how to use it. That is teaching.

 

 

I think I have said all I can about communication. If the consensus indicates that papers are mostly perfectly adequately written, I won't argue. So be it - the majority have spoken.

 

As for linguistic differences, I offer the following:

 

 

http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/4110/whorf.html

That quote goes some way to explaining why it's hard for writers to take into account non-native speakers when writing in their own language.

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It seems to me that the postings in this thread are discussing two equal and opposite problems.

 

1. The over-use of jargon and stupidly obscure terminology, making papers hard to understand.

 

2. The opposite is to use imprecise and inaccurate language, making the clear meanings of science unclear.

 

Is this not another case where the key is balance? Science writers should be seeking the right and propare balance - obtaining precision without descending to obscurity?

 

If that is correct, and I think it is, then the balance will be different for each publication. A paper in 'Science' or 'Nature' should be more widely readable than a paper in a more specialised and obscure journal. This is because Science and Nature print papers on a wide range of fields, and are read by people who are not specialists in those fields. Thus, greater readability is required.

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It seems to me that the postings in this thread are discussing two equal and opposite problems.
I think you're right.

 

1. The over-use of jargon and stupidly obscure terminology, making papers hard to understand.
Yes, that can happen, but is dicouraged. Good (high impact) journals tends to avoid it. Lecturers absolutely have to if they want to stand any chance at all of not putting students into coma.

 

2. The opposite is to use imprecise and inaccurate language, making the clear meanings of science unclear.
Therein lies the balance. The language should be as simple as possible, but no simpler, or you quickly loose precision.

 

Is this not another case where the key is balance? Science writers should be seeking the right and propare balance - obtaining precision without descending to obscurity?
Exactly. This is precisely the point.

 

If that is correct, and I think it is, then the balance will be different for each publication. A paper in 'Science' or 'Nature' should be more widely readable than a paper in a more specialised and obscure journal. This is because Science and Nature print papers on a wide range of fields, and are read by people who are not specialists in those fields. Thus, greater readability is required.
In my experience, that tends to be the case.

 

 

Another problem lies with the difference between the perceptions of the writers and those of the readers. Many writers have been involved in their fields and have been writing for years. However, many readers are students and people new to science. I will try to illustrate this difference using an anecdote:

 

I was teaching a class in research methods. The students had been split into groups, and each group was required to design and implement a simple, cognitive experiment for their course work.

 

One group had decided to conduct an experiment on memory. They had chosen to test the hypothesis that familiarity would aid recall. To test this, they decided to put together two lists of 20 words. One list would consist of common words in daily use and the other would consist of more obscure or archaic words that were less commmonly used.

 

The idea was that they would present these lists to two groups of people (the 'commmon' list to one group, the 'obscure' list to another group), and see which group would remember the greatest number of words after a two minute exposure to the list (and a one-minute distraction task to prevent rehersal).

 

The students took a week to prepare the two word lists and showed them to me the following week. I checked them and for the life of me, I couldn't tell the difference. Even after a year I still remember one of the words in their 'obscure' word list. It was 'Sill' (as in 'window sill').

 

I probed them about this (gently, as my aim was not to humiliate them...most unlike me... but I was intrigued Oh. I just remembered, 'Intrigue' was another word on their 'obscure' list), and all four of them honestly believed that the 'obscure list' contained obscure and archaic words that they were convinced would not be familiar to most people. The difference was absolutely clear to them. As I said though, I could see no difference between the lists.

 

After this thread, I can't help wondering if these students might represent those people that complain the loudest about the 'obscure' terminology used in journal articles.

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