Too much jargon might mean fewer citations for your paper

April 6, 2021

Excessive jargon may be turning off readers. (Pixabay/Dean Moriarty)

The use of scientific jargon in an academic paper's title and abstract correlates with a drop in the overall number of citations the paper receives, according to a new study that suggests that a higher proportion of specialized vocabulary reduces readership.

In the study, researchers analyzed 21,486 articles published over the last 30 years that focused on cave research, which is a multidisciplinary field particularly prone to terminology specialization, "and where linguistic disagreement among peers is frequent," according to the researchers. 

"Geologists, zoologists, anthropologists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists have interacted in the darkness of caves populating 120 years of cave literature with a maze of specialized terms," the researchers wrote. "We took advantage of the long tradition of multidisciplinary and high terminological specialization offered by cave literature to investigate the effect of jargon use on article success — measured as the number of citations."

"It's an arena for many fields," Alejandro Martínez, co-author of the paper and researcher at the National Research Council in Italy, told The Academic Times.  "If we don't even understand each other when we meet in the cave, what's going to happen when we go to the outside world?"

The researchers highlight the tendency of academic articles to use complicated words in lieu of simpler words, which makes the title and abstract of academic papers harder to understand. 

"We quote Richard Feynman when he says, basically, 'learning new words is not learning science,'" Martínez said. "No, it's just learning new ways to communicate with what is going on in nature."

"And I think, actually, if you talk to any researcher, they will agree with that," he added. "But somehow when we sit down and try to write, there is like another part of the brain that has this tendency to use fancy words, thinking that that would be making the paper better. But every good writer in the English language has been making this point: Write in simple words."

The researchers manually assembled a comprehensive list of about 1,500 jargon words from cave books and research literature, and then they calculated the proportion of jargon terminology relative to the total number of words in the title and abstract of each academic article from both cave-specific and general international journals.

The researchers used a Poisson generalized additive model to observe the effect, and they normalized the number of citations by article age to account for the fact that older papers will have had more time to accumulate citations. 

They found a clear and significant inverse relationship between the number of scientific jargon words in the title and abstract of the paper and the number of citations: The more jargon words used, the fewer citations the paper received.

There was a sudden drop in citations when the proportion of jargon was above 1% of the abstract of the academic paper, and none of the highest cited papers — those with more than 450 citations — used jargon in the title. Nearly all highly cited papers had a proportion of jargon in the abstract below 1%. 

The researchers cautioned, though, that while they found a negative correlation between jargon words and the number of citations, this data does not definitively conclude as to whether jargon is actually causing this drop in citations. Nonetheless, the researchers theorize that jargon-heavy titles and abstracts may be discouraging people from reading the full study.

"A global estimate pointed out that scientists skim an average of over 1,100 titles and 200 abstracts a year, but they go on to read 97 full-texts," the researchers wrote. "This suggests that the stylistic features of titles and abstracts act as important filters: If overuse of jargon prevents a reader from understanding the message of a paper, this paper is unlikely to end up being among the 97 chosen few."

This paper adds to a growing library of literature examining factors that can impact an academic paper's number of citations; a paper published last month, for example, revealed that being curated into an academic review journal leads to a dramatic decrease in future citations.  

"We really hope this will lead to a healthy conversation," Martínez said. "We were very worried that it may sound arrogant in any way telling people how they should write. And this is not what we want. I mean, we think everyone should write the way they feel like."

"We want to emphasize this idea of better choosing of words, making words more general, which makes conversations much better," he said. "Having good conversations is fundamental. Choosing words that people understand without getting into unnecessary complication will make us have better conversations. And that will be useful, not only in science, but also in other aspects of life and society."

The study "Specialized terminology reduces the number of citations to scientific papers," published April 6 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, was co-authored by Alejandro Martínez, National Research Council; and Stefano Mammola, National Research Council and Finnish Museum of Natural History.

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