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De-jargonizing program helps decode science speak

Program designed to help scientists and science communication instructors improve and adapt vocabulary use when communicating with non-experts.

Science is fascinating to many, but sentences that are full of expert-level terms and descriptions can scare away the average reader. Can scientists learn to talk about their research without using too many technical terms? One of the obstacles to avoiding jargon is that scientists suffer from “the curse of knowledge”: They simply do not remember not knowing what they now know as experts.

To help scientists recognize which words are jargon and should be avoided or explained when engaging with the public, researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and HIT-Holon Institute of Technology have created a program that automatically identifies terms the average person may not know.

A paper published recently in PLOS One introduced the free and scientist-friendly De-Jargonizer hosted at scienceandpublic.com. Once a text is uploaded or pasted, the algorithm color-codes words in the text as either frequent or intermediate-level general vocabulary or jargon. This is based on the frequency with which the words appear on an internet news site designed and written for the public. The corpus will be updated periodically and can be expanded to include other sources and languages.

"The De-Jargonizer provides a grim glimpse at the current level of jargon in scientific writing,” Technion professor Ayelet Baram-Tsabari said.

When the authors compared 5,000 pairs of lay summaries written for a wide audience and their corresponding academic abstracts published in the journals PLOS Computational Biology and PLOS Genetics, results showed that lay summaries indeed include less jargon (10%) than academic abstracts (14%), on average. However, research previously showed that for adequate comprehension, readers need to be familiar with 98% of the words.

Therefore, the recommended level of unfamiliar words, i.e., jargon, is 2% — much lower than the percentage found in the lay summaries.

"The scientists intuitively understand they need to use less jargon when speaking with the public than to their peers, but using so many unfamiliar words excludes the very people they are trying to engage," Baram-Tsabari said.

The program is designed to help scientists and science communication instructors improve and adapt vocabulary use when communicating with non-experts. In addition, professionals in medicine could use it to evaluate text level for communication with patients.

Overall, the importance of such a tool is to aid in making science and research accessible to the public in order to support informed citizenship and to generate more productive dialogue in these complex times for science in society.

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