Jargon and Readability

When I started drafting this post, I planned to write about how to use (or not to use) technical language in science communication. Technical language (more frequently referred to as “jargon”) is a hot topic in the science communication world and articles, essays, and tip-sheets on the topic abound. Rather than re-hashing what’s already been said, I  decided to reflect on my own experiences with jargon and trying to improve the readability of my work.

A long time ago, in a library far, far away…

“Libraries” and “jargon” are two words that you probably don’t see together very often, but library jargon generates its fair-share of arguments lively discussions in libraries and conference meetings across the country. Do we let vendors decide the terminology we  use? Do we adopt patrons’ casual (and sometimes inaccurate) terminology? How do we help people find information if our directions are in a completely different language?

Dealing with library jargon taught me two things: Sometimes, you just need to let it goTechnically, the search filters in the discovery tool (the search engine used to search a library’s collection) are called “facets.” No one calls them facets. They’re “filters,” or if you’re feeling fancy, “refinement options.” Neither of those terms are  correct, but enforcing correct terminology would have added nothing to a user’s experience besides confusion.

Sometimes, you can’t let it go. Interlibrary loan, holds, and course reserves might all be shelved within 5 feet of one another, but they are very different thingsTeaching students about the differences between the three can help them identify their information needs faster and more efficiently. In this instance, acknowledging the difference is both useful and necessary.

Knowing your audience and what they need and want is the key to knowing when and where you can use technical terminology.

library jargon
To be fair, even I’m not entirely sure what they mean by “search statement.” (Student responses and understanding of commonly used terminology in library instruction. From Hutcherson, 2004.)

Applying the lesson

“Know your audience” can be fairly straightforward. I know that a group of students enrolled in a first-year writing class have very different information needs than a group of applied behavior analysis grad students and I can adjust my lesson plan accordingly.

In contrast, I have no real way of knowing exactly who the readers of sleepersharks.org will be. I can make some educated guesses, but beyond that I’m limited in what I can do.

Creating sleepersharks.org

One of the biggest challenges in creating sleepersharks.org was deciding how technical I could be in my descriptions Without having a specific audience in mind, it becomes difficult to decide which terms are acceptable and which are not. Ovoviviparous is definitely too much, but what about benthic? Or generalistHow about trophic level and primary producer?

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that words have different meanings for different groups of people (from Sommerville and Hassol, 2011).

Let’s take a look at an example from a sentence about sleeper shark diets from sleepersharks.org:

Stomach content analysis of S. pacificus reveals a generalist diet of teleost fish, squid, benthic invertebrates, and occasionally, marine mammals.

And my changes to improve readability:

Stomach content analysis of S. pacificus reveals a generalist broad diet of teleost fish, squid, benthic sea-floor dwelling invertebrates, and occasionally, marine mammals.

The first part sounds technical, but I think it’s probably the best way to say “Someone cut open sleeper shark stomachs/examined buckets of vomit to figure out what they’re eating.” I established the relationship between Pacific sleeper shark and S. pacificus in an earlier section, so that can stay as well.

Generalist initially seems okay (it has the word “general” in it!), but some readers might be unfamiliar with this use of the word. Teleost adds absolutely nothing to the sentence and so it can go.

I was (and still am) torn about using benthic invertebrate; it’s descriptive and rolls off the tongue nicely, but neither are commonly used words. Invertebrate is probably more familiar to readers than benthic though, so I decided to keep it.

The wrap-up

I’m a big fan of this approach to jargon in science communication: don’t be afraid of technical words or complex ideas so long as we’re willing to explain them to our audience. It’s the approach that I’ve taken this summer, and hopefully I’ve been successful in creating an approachable and readable website.

Simplification to the extreme

I came across the Up-Goer Five Text Editor while researching ideas for this post. Based on the xkcd comic of the same name, the Up-Goer Five Text Editor asks users to explain complex or difficult ideas using only the 1000 most most used words (or “ten hundred” most used words, as “thousand” isn’t actually in the 1000 most used words).

While I would never advocate limiting yourself to the 1000 most used words, Up-Goer Five is a fun exercise in trying to simplify your language. Can you figure out what this simplified passage from sleepersharks.org is supposed to mean?

While of little money use themselves, Left Big Water sleeping water cold things are often caught as other catch in deep bottom and long line water food things. Caught sleeping water things often become caught in lines, meaning that hurt and death caused by catch (also known as “throw away death”) may be high for this type of big water thing.

How about this passage?

Stomach study of Left Big Water sleeping cold things shows wide food use of  small water cold things, many legged water things without backs, bottom living water things without backs, and sometimes, big water warm things.

As it turns out, it’s extremely difficult to talk about marine biology when you can’t use even use “ocean” in your description!

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