I thought of a fun exercise we can all contribute to. It’s partly inspired by this article (see the section entitled “Inoculating against jargonitis” by Helen Sword), and partly by the multitudes of papers I read and review that are chock-full of indecipherable terms and phrases (often strings of nouns, interestingly) that I have to pause and consider for way too long before I can extract any meaning from them. Jargon bogs down our ability to communicate and instantly loses the attention of the people we are (usually) most trying to get our message across to (see Carl Zimmer’s Index of Banned Words that he uses in his science writing classes here, and Ed Yong’s perspective on scientific jargon). Of course, technical terms do have their place in explaining complex techniques to specialized audiences (see a careful analysis of scientific jargon here). The vast majority of the time, jargon is unnecessary and unwanted.
I realized when I sat down to write this, that a comprehensive list of commonly used terms and phrases that make me cringe and then go straight to Google didn’t come to mind immediately. So, let’s make that list.
Let’s raise our jargon-spotting awareness. Just thinking about which terms and phrases might be meaningless to others (anyone from our closest colleagues to laypeople who rarely think about science) is a good mental exercise. We may learn to think twice about these overly-technical words next time we are about to use them. And we can have a good laugh at the same time…
So don’t be shy; add your favorite jargon terms or phrases along with a translation in plain English to the comments section, and I’ll add them to the table below. Let’s see how many we can deconstruct!
|Jargon term or phrase||Plain English|
|natural enemy||parasite or predator|
|negative feedback||inhibitory process|
|positive feedback||self-reinforcing process|
|bottom-up regulation||food availability controls herbivore numbers|
|top-down regulation||predators control prey numbers|
|primary insect||plant-killing insect|
|secondary insect||insect that kills stressed plants|
|demographic rate||death and birth rates|
|normality||whether numbers fit a bell-shaped curve|
|in situ||actual location|
|positive correlation||two variables increase together|
|in vitro||in a test tube or culture dish|
|in vivo||in a living organism|
More on jargon:
–This is a humorous translation of some technical phrases commonly used in science and their most probable actual meaning.
-Another good list of scientific jargon plus some translations.
Update (November 8, 2016): A peripherally-related article reports that biologists are starting to write in a less formal style, and this could be good for building a better connection with readers.
Update April 21, 2017: New study on how science is becoming less readable over time