Rethinking SciComm’s Spotlight on Jargon

It seems that a resounding theme of every science communication how-to guide is to avoid jargon. Jargon is any language that’s field-specific. On the surface, this “rule” makes total sense — if your audience doesn’t understand the words you’re using, they’re unlikely to understand the ideas you’re communicating. Jargon can definitely be a barrier to effective science communication, but there are two important points that the NO JARGON campaign misses: first, jargon is not always terrible, and second, eliminating jargon is not enough.

Jargon is not all bad

One way of accomplishing the first half of that reminder is to avoid the terms that require specialized knowledge to understand. Eliminating jargon sounds good.

But the rule to eliminate all jargon violates the second half  — to not underestimate an audience’s intelligence. Unless you’re speaking to an elementary school class or other specific population, your audience can probably handle some jargon. Of course you should define terms that could be new to your audience. But you don’t have to cut them out entirely. I didn’t attend ComSciCon-Triangle, but I was encouraged to see that speaker Abby Olena also suggested that we don’t need to treat jargon as Public Enemy #1 (thanks to this great blog post by Sarah Loftus for recapping the comments).

If you try to replace all jargon with explanations that use less specialized vocabulary, you’re likely to end up with cumbersome and roundabout explanations that lose your audience anyway, and potentially make them feel patronized in the process — we can all tell when someone’s avoiding using a “big word” because they think we can’t handle it.

I am all for cutting unnecessary jargon, or cutting words that actually mean something different in science than they do outside science. The American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science blog has a great list of these, along with tips for reducing jargon. Let’s continue to cut excessive and unnecessary jargon, but let’s also push back against the advice that proclaims Absolutely No Jargon Anytime.

Jargon is just the tip of the iceberg

Another reason I get frustrated when people fixate on jargon is that reducing it is usually not that hard. It requires care and diligence to anticipate what will be jargon to an audience, but if you have an editor or listener from another field give input, you can usually catch jargon and replace it with more accessible descriptions. It takes time, but it’s rarely too intellectually challenging to remedy.

A sole focus on removing jargon is like “fixing” a hole in the wall by sliding your dresser in front of it. The hole is not fixed; it’s just hidden. Excising jargon eliminates the most glaring signs of inaccessibility, but it doesn’t fix the communication. In many cases, even when jargon is eliminated, the talk or article is still hard to understand. Cutting jargon is the tip of the iceberg.

We need to drastically broaden our acknowledgement of the factors that make information accessible to our audiences. It’s not just the words we use, but the layers of assumptions and experiences that underlie our ideas that can make them hard for people outside our field to understand in the way we want them to.

For example, in scientific research, we place great value on background research — knowing what was already known and what wasn’t before a study began. Background information is almost always described at the beginning of a scientific paper because the scientific community by and large assumes this information is crucial for understanding a given study.

But when communicating outside your discipline, if you assume your audience has the same appreciation for background info and understanding that it sets the stage for what’s to come, you might lose them. It’s not that they don’t understand the background information, but they don’t have the same scientific experience that tells them why they should care about this information. I’m not being revolutionary right now — the “inverted pyramid,” in which findings are communicated first and background last (the opposite of how science is communicated to other scientists) is common practice for journalists. Failing to follow this advice and instead using an academic frame, assuming that your audience expects background information and knows how to integrate it into findings you will present later often makes a message inaccessible — whether or not it contains jargon.

Another common problematic assumption in science communication is that the topic is worth studying. If you’ve been working on a topic for many years, hopefully you consider it an important one. There’s a good chance your audience doesn’t yet know why it’s important, and this is especially true of basic science. Instead of mentioning at the end (again, as we do in scientific papers) why this topic is worthy of study, your whole communication can be framed around the idea that this topic is important; and here’s why!

To sum up…

I’m not advocating for jargon-filled science communications. When there’s a simpler way to say something, we should always do that. When jargony terms aren’t necessary for understanding the ideas, we should remove them. And when a term means something different in a scientific and a lay context, we should avoid it. But sometimes jargon is necessary, and using it sparingly can result in a clearer communication than banishing it altogether.

I think the science communication community should stop fixating on jargon in part because it’s not always evil, but also because it’s not the only evil. The assumptions that underlie our messages can be just as confusing and ineffective as incomprehensible words used within. We need to address factors like underlying assumptions that threaten the accessibility of our science communications and are more challenging than replacing words and phrases with descriptions. Sure, let’s reduce jargon, but in doing so, let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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