If you’re like most people, reading scientific papers is simply impossible — even if it weren’t prohibitively expensive. You have to be an expert in the field to even get close to most papers, and even then, things aren’t easy. There’s too much dense jargon, too much insider niched info. In case you’re wondering if it’s your fault — it isn’t. A new study highlighted that science has gotten harder to read, and it’s like going to get even harder.
Clarity and accuracy of reporting are fundamental to the scientific process, the study starts, and yet the understandability of scientific papers has significantly gone down year after year. To quantify this process, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden downloaded 707,452 biomedical articles from 122 journals, published between 1881 and 2015. They then carried out two measures of readability:
the Flesch Reading Ease, a test designed to indicate how difficult a passage in English is to understand.
Such tests are often used for determining whether a text is appropriate for children or young adults at a certain stage of their education. They identified a steady descending trend in article readability. For instance, in 1960, just 16% of texts required a tertiary (college graduate) level of English to comprehend — now, it’s over 26%.
It’s not just the field-specific jargon that’s making things harder to read, but also what the researchers called in-group scientific language — science-esque words like “robust” or “underlying.”
The study focused only on one area of research (biomedicine), so results should be replicated before we can definitely talk about the entirety of science suffering from a readability problem, but the indirect evidence is pretty clear.
This can have long reaching effects. First of all, science can be greatly held down due to the lack of proper communication. As science writer Philip Ball points out in a column in Nature, it’s not just the way the words are used in, but also the way some researchers skip over important ideas, concepts, or steps in their research.
“As a regular reader of research papers, I am often staggered by their leaps of reasoning or omission of key details, especially when I discover that these gaps are no less real to experts,” Ball writes.
Secondly, the denseness of most scientific papers makes it harder for students and aspiring researchers to comprehend what’s going on, setting an unreasonably high knowledge entry barrier. Perhaps most worrying, this also sets up a fertile ground for a reproducibility crisis. Reproducibility is at the core of scientific research, and a hard-to-understand vocabulary can make it very hard to reproduce studies. Also, I may be speculating, but the recent anti-intellectual trend might have also spread so much because for most people, science is simply opaque — too hard to understand, alien. The study concludes:
“These results are concerning for scientists and for the wider public, as they impact both the reproducibility and accessibility of research findings.”
So what should researchers do?
Ball advises students to put down the latest publication and instead focus on picking some role models. This could give birth to a new generation of scientists with a different approach to publishing.
“Why not encourage students to put down Nature and pick up Darwin, Dawkins or Dickens?” suggests Ball.
The study has not been peer-reviewed, you can read it in the pre-print server of Biology.
Journal Reference: Pontus Plavén-Sigray, Granville James Matheson, Björn Christian Schiffler, View ORCID ProfileWilliam Hedley Thompson — The Readability Of Scientific Texts Is Decreasing Over Time. https://doi.org/10.1101/119370
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.