The language of science

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When talking science with other scientists it is very easy to slip into a language that is common to you both. It will probably be full of jargon and acronyms. These conversations, whilst perfectly acceptable between scientists can sound like a completely foreighn language to those who are not scientists or even those from a different discipline within science.

We often forget this when trying to communicate our work. This last week I have been listening to a lot of great researchers explaining their work to the rest of the members of the institute where I work. Now, this is an audience that is mostly scientists but there were some other members of staff in the audience as well from the various support teams across the institute from controlled environments all the way through to legal.

This must have presented these speakers with a great challenge as there would, most probably, have been a desire to slip into their everyday language that is used within their group – words that are familiar to everyone who works in their field – but instead they needed to communicate in a style that was much more accessible both to scientists outside of their field and the other members of the institute.

I thought that all of the speakers did fantastically. Across the entire two days there were only a couple of moments when I became lost and the talks definitely spanned areas that were far outside my expertise.

Having recently given a talk myself (you can read the transcript here) as part of the popular public engagement series Cafe Scientifique I have been thinking a lot about language and how we use it in so many different ways.

At school and university we are often judged on our writing and presentation skills and so the way in which we communicate is very much tailored to this. We communicate in a way to show off, to demonstrate how clever we are. However, upon leaving the education system this is very rarely the purpose of any form of communication. The purpose of almost any form of communication can fall into one of four categories: to inform, describe, persuade or entertain. None of these involve the writer, or speaker, demonstrating the extent of their own cleverness through the use of absurdly long sentences or overly complicated grammatical constructs. So does our education system favour this?

I feel that as scientist, many of us have a long way to go to improve our communication. So many papers fall foul of the ideas discussed above and use overly complicated language leaving the reader perplexed and confused as opposed to informed about the science within.

The language of science is not only restricted to paper-writing but to many other types of activities. We need to communicate with stake-holders policy makers, members of the public, children, other scientists within our fields and from different disciplines. Each of these separate audiences requires a different language and careful thought about the way in which we communicate our science.



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