Why are scientists so bad at using words?

I just finished reading a batch of research proposals submitted to our J.E. Weaver grant program, a program administered through the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.  Graduate students apply annually for $1000 grants to help them with their research projects.  In the instructions for applying to the grant we have the following (in italics to make sure students see it): Please note that reviewers will consist of a mix of scientists and non-scientists, so please keep your language and writing readable for a wide audience.   

That’s pretty clear, right?  Apparently not.  I have a pretty good vocabulary and am familiar with most of the research topics being discussed in the proposals I read.  Regardless, there were numerous times when I had to read a sentence three or four times to make sure I understood it.  After a couple hours of proposal reading, the last thing I want is to wrestle with a sentence.  Just tell me what you’re doing and why I should care.

I didn’t know what kinds of photos would best illustrate this post, so I decided to just share a few cute animals to offset how cranky I my writing sounds. On the other hand, this little baby softshell turtle looks a little cranky too, doesn’t it?

To some extent, the problem is that most graduate students are still fairly inexperienced writers.  Stringing words together in a coherent way is difficult.  However, when you combine unseasoned writing with a desire to look academically smart, the result is a disaster.  Have you ever been in the back of a room, trying to hear what a speaker at the front of the room is saying, but they’re speaking just softly enough you can barely hear the words?  You have to put so much of your energy into catching the words that your brain doesn’t have enough capacity left over to translate their meaning.  That’s what it’s like to read research proposals full of jargon, acronyms, frivolous latin terms, and uselessly highfalutin words.

Quick caveat – I actually enjoy reading these Weaver grant proposals each year.  There is a lot of smart and interesting research going on around the Great Plains and beyond, and I love learning from the graduate students and their projects.  I come away from the experience with a renewed energy for science.  However, I also come away with a headache from staring blearily at paragraphs I can’t quite decipher.

I don’t blame the students, I blame the professors.  No offense, professors, but you have to do better.  First, you need to set a better example.  After all, it’s you the students are trying to emulate.  They use the same big words and useless jargon you use because they want your admiration (and your signature on their thesis).  Who are you trying to impress when you write like that?  If you’re trying to impress reviewers of your journal articles, don’t you think they’d rather read clear and concise language than plow through piles of overly-technical terminology?  Don’t you want your research results to be understood, appreciated, and put into use?  If so, why use words that only a very narrow slice of the world’s population comprehends? 

Second, you need to help your students.  You wrote a nice recommendation letter that accompanied their proposal, so I assume you read the proposal too?  If not, that’s just a bad job by you.  If you did read it, why didn’t you give them more helpful feedback?  I understand that our small grant program is often used as a practice exercise for students learning to write grants – and I think that’s great.  However, it’s only productive practice if you’re editing their work and providing them with useful guidance.

Good grief. 

I apologize for ranting, but I hope you’ll cut me a little slack.  I just finished reading proposals full of sentences like this one (which I’m making up as an example): “By conflagrating indecipherable exoskeletons using McDonnells’ constabulary ordination technique, we expect to establish, ex libris, perfunctorily correlative conclusions.”  How many times did you read that sentence before you decided it was worthless to try deciphering it?  It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

This bee is clinging to a grass stem like I was clinging to my sanity while reading research proposals this morning… Or something.

As a free public service to academic writers everywhere, and as a favor to everyone trying to slog through scientific journal articles and other similar texts, I am hereby offering the following tips for clear communication of ideas and results:

Don’t use jargon.  I know you’ve heard this before, but I mean it.  Come on.  Pretend you’re explaining your research to your mom (unless she’s an expert in your field, then substitute another close relative whose opinion matters to you).  Use words she would know.  If you absolutely have to use a particular technical term to convey a precise meaning or concept, use it, but define it for your reader.

Write in short sentences and short paragraphs.  If I’ve forgotten what the beginning of your sentence said before I reach the end of it, you’ve failed at communicating.  Paragraph breaks allow your reader to catch their breath before diving into your next idea.  Please let your readers breathe.

Stop trying to impress us with your vocabulary.  The point of writing is to communicate ideas.  No one cares about the grandiloquence of your exposition.  We just want to know what you’re saying.  While I’m on this subject, the word myriad is a perfectly nice term, but most of you are using it incorrectly.  Look it up and either use it appropriately or not at all.  Thank you.

Latin names for species are important.  They help make sure we’re all talking about the same species because there are a lot of plants called “blazing star.”  However, if you use a Latin name, include a common name too – or at least tell us what kind of organism we’re dealing with.  I honest-to-goodness read a three-page proposal this morning that referred to the study organism exclusively by its Latin name (and one that had very recently changed, no less) throughout the entire document.  Someone unfamiliar with herpetology could have read the whole proposal and not known it was about a frog.

Speaking of Latin words, I hereby and officially ban all future use of the term in situ.  Maybe that term had a place in conversation at some point in history, but it has no purpose today other than to alienate readers who aren’t part of whatever club you think you’re in.  It’s not difficult to write phrases such as “on site” or “in place” or “where it lives”, all of which will convey your meaning perfectly well in a way that is accessible to all of us.

This little horned lark fledgling is well camouflaged. Good writing shouldn’t, um, camouflage the message it is intended to send?

Ok, I think that’s enough.  I could easily come up with more tips, but I would risk violating my own guidance about the need for conciseness.  It comes down to this: writing is hard, but the best writing is that which the reader can follow effortlessly.  Don’t write as if you’re trying to impress or fit in with people you think sound smart.  Just tell us what you want us to know.  We’ll appreciate it and pay attention.  Heck, we might even admire you for it.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

19 thoughts on “Why are scientists so bad at using words?

  1. GREAT POST, Chris!!! When I have helped researchers write “Statements of Need” for funding, I have often found myself re-writing and editing everything to make it relevant and readable. This is SO important when going for that funding! Thank you for speaking out.

  2. Chris:

    Great post. Scientist need to learn to persuade for lots of reasons.

    Two things that might help make better writers:
    1.) Read you written words out loud. (Even if no-one but you is listening.)
    2.) Write to a specific audience.

    Best book I’ve read lately on persuasion:
    “Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga” by Joseph Romm

  3. Nice I agree , I do not have a clue about Latin names , read studies all the time as a land owner, without a degree in natural sciences. Thanks!

  4. It is a wonder they can write at all! Our high schools constantly graduate kids who cannot read. I also suggest reading lots of books that are not field guides or related to their classes.
    This is a marvelous essay. I love the photos. Brilliant!

  5. You had me laughing thinking about someone reading a whole proposal and not knowing it was about frogs.

    You know most graduate students barely have enough money to even eat and are extremely over worked. Even really smart people will write poorly when they are under a deadline and deprived of sleep. If you don’t like what has been submitted, then mark it up, send it back, and tell them to change it.

    FYI – Thanks for the tip on the misuse of myriad. That is a word I have not heard in a long time. I had thought it meant ‘variety’ from context, but after checking the definition I now see I had it wrong.

  6. Having been a University Professor, I heartily agree! Your comments/recommendations are the same points I tried to convey to my students (both graduate and undergraduate).

  7. What a wonderful article! I’ve been an English teacher, writer, and editor for the past 56 years. In all that time perhaps the best advice I have received (more than once) is KISS — keep it simple, stupid. While I object to the final word of that advice, the first three are golden.

  8. Have I mentioned yet how much I love your writing? It reminds me of the pieces I used to write several years ago back in the Adirondacks (comment not meant to be self-serving) – it’s the light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek style that makes me laugh. Thank yoU!

  9. On a different note, when I was in graduate school and it was time for the poster session, there were all the grad student posters filled with 8.5 x 11″ pages, single spaced text, lots of graphs, etc, and there was mine: a board with three or four photos, and three or four text panels with about 24 words each in 36 point print. Each had a humorous title (“Home is Where you Hang your Bat” is the only one that comes to mind now – my project was on bat colony relocation). The difference? My major area of study was interpretation, so my “poster” was more like a sign that you’d see in a park…and everyone loved it! It was probably the one of the very few that was read in its entirety.

  10. A very practical rant, indeed, Chris. Thanks for all the good points about clarity and simplicity in writing wherever possible. I have read a lot of undergrad and grad student writing over the last four decades, and have observed a general decline in the quality. It is even leaching into published journal articles! I think that it is about poor coaching in earlier grades on how to write well, and as you say, trying to appear smart.
    One point on which I differ from some commentators above is about Latinized scientific names. I think they are necessary for certainty and clarity about which biological organism(s) the writer proposes to study. I do recommend adding an English equivalent, but since vernacular names are still far from standardized for most groups of living things, the Latin must be there first.
    I will toot my own horn as a practiced reader, though; I had had to read your fake example only once to understand every word individually, and to realize that strung together, they were utter nonsense. :-)

  11. I completely agree. Any conservation message is lost if the listener can’t decipher your delivery. MN DNR has “use plain language” as a goal and objective in our Conservation Agenda (planning document). From the plan:
    Provide better service
    We will continuously improve our work, use plain language, and modernize our digital presence to improve accessibility to information and services.

  12. This was a very enjoyable post, as usual, because Chris is such a good writer. I experience similar frustrations, but mostly because it seems like people just don’t know how to write, in general, anymore. Everyone needs to rant sometimes, and this was a worthwhile subject in which to rant about.

  13. That is why J.E.Weaver is a great writer of research!! I first read The North American Prairie A Fifty Year Study back in 1978 while in seventh grade! To me it was a Bible on prairie plants and their environment!


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