Communication and Engagement

On the Jargon Hunt

As a researcher I use words in everyday conversation that, should I use outside the confines of my department, would cause most to start at me blankly. Some of these words I have already covered in my blog – such as apoptosis, angiogenesis and metastasis.

So, when it comes to talking to people outside my department, who are not familiar with the scientific jargon, how should I communicate my research? Well obviously any word that comes with an aggressive looking, wiggly, red line is probably out – I have long since given up teaching Microsoft Word the many words that do not appear in its vocabulary.  Instead, I have resigned to the fact that I am working off of a different dictionary to that of my computer.

Is jargon even needed to communicate effectively? Clearly some words can be substituted by those that already exist in the Microsoft Word version of the English language; we can talk about when a cancer spreads just as easily as using the word metastasis, and outcome can be used in place of prognosis. But then there are those words that don’t come with an effective substitute – there is no word in common usage for angiogenesis.

As a ‘scientist in training’ undergoing a PhD involves learning to use language to effectively communicate ideas.

Undertaking a PhD involves learning to use language to effectively communicate ideas. But communicating to a scientific audience is very different from communicating to the general public, and the latter can sometimes be forgotten. Perhaps part of the PhD training process should include learning these two very different types of communication, and when to use each of them.

I recently read that when communicating science we should…

Hunt down jargon, mercilessly like a mercenary possessed, and kill it.

This is something I disagree with, some jargon is useful. If every time I wanted to talk about angiogenesis I had to explain it fully – a tumour encouraging new blood vessels to form around it, so delivering the growing mass of cells with enough oxygen to allow that tumour to survive and grow –  I would be wasting time. Instead by explaining the concept, and introducing a choice technical term that describes it, I can communicate research advances in this area much more effectively. In this case is ‘angiogenesis’ really jargon or is it a very useful word? And if so…

…when it comes to communicating to a wider audience, should we be taught to differentiate between the jargon that can be substituted, and jargon that should be explained?

Where technical words should be explained, have we learnt the art of explaining them well? I want to do a little experiment – think of a word you use everyday that the majority of the population would probably not understand. Can you come up with a sentence to describe it? Yes? Well write that sentence in the comment box but DO NOT tell me the term you are describing. I shall invite others to try and guess the ‘jargon’ word.

Jargon busting not only allows you to communicate more effectively with a public audience, it also has a place in academic communications. Gone are the days when scientists were expected to talk to only those involved in their research field. Research is progressively involving collaborations between many different types of scientist, and you might find that your collaborators don’t use the same dictionary as you. I invite you to take a look at the dictionary you are using and find ways of making it more compatible.

If you fancy joining in the #JargonHunt, tweet your jargon term followed by a jargon busting explanation or substitute word.


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