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17 Feb 2019

Speaking “Science-ese”: Why Clear Communication is so Vital to Academic Writing

Imagine it: You are in a foreign country, surrounded by people who speak a different language. You are in a desperate rush to get somewhere; perhaps you’ve gotten lost on your way to a business meeting, or even worse, you need to find a bathroom! The people around you are well-meaning and would be glad to direct you, but you can’t understand a word they are saying! Despite their expertise and good intentions, their knowledge is lost in translation, and you are no closer to being where you want to be. This situation illustrates how knowledge and intent are irrelevant when severe communication barriers exist, which relates to the importance of clear communication in academic writing.

Research is an incredibly useful way to understand the world. However, much of the time, the knowledge gained through research is lost in translation to “non-academic” audiences. People who don’t know technical, scientific jargon can feel like the traveler in the story above when trying to read academic work: lost and confused despite the wealth of knowledge surrounding them. To avoid this confusion, clear communication should be the goal of every piece of academic writing. Therefore, articles reviewed by Military REACH are evaluated not only on scientific credibility and contribution, but also on how well the article communicates the topic or idea. The communicative aspect of an article is assessed by examining its coherence, understandability, and readability.

First, an article is evaluated for coherence; in other words, how well it fits into the whole of scientific knowledge on the subject. Think of this like referencing a map in a mall: these maps have store locations, as a well as a “You are here” marker, to let you know your current position. Coherence is like the “You are here” dot on the map – it tells what is already known, what has yet to be discovered, and where the researcher is going next. The most coherent articles include information on previous research, as well as theoretical viewpoints, to help organize current knowledge on the topic of interest.

Next, articles are examined for understandability. Put simply, how clearly and consistently are the authors using scientific or theoretical terms? Often, scientific findings and theories come with their own “jargon;” they may use language in non-typical ways or have specific meanings for certain concepts. The most understandable articles carefully define concepts and terms, providing concrete examples so that their readers can make mental connections to their own knowledge base.

Finally, articles are evaluated on readability, which refers to clear, concise, and logically organized writing. Though this sounds simple and obvious, it may be the most difficult goal to achieve in academic writing. The most readable articles are clear by striking the right balance between scientific terms and plain language. If the article is too formal, people will have difficulty understanding it; if too informal, people will not take it seriously as a scientific work. Additionally, the best written articles are concise, not using any more words than necessary to make their point while adequately providing context. Finally, the most readable articles have a logical flow to their content. The “story” of the paper is present, and the sections lead into one another with clear transitions. In this regard, writing an excellent scholarly work is an art form and difficult to accomplish.

Though the Military REACH team places a high priority on scientific credibility (see more detail on this in the November 2018 newsletter) and contribution (see the January 2019 newsletter), the communicative nature of an article may be the most important piece for evaluation. Like the traveler in the story above, our audiences are not benefited by information that may as well be in a foreign language to them. Scientific writings are often criticized for being behind a knowledge wall, inaccessible to those who have not received extensive training in “science-ese.” It is vital that scientific writing be clearly communicated; otherwise, the findings could be the most helpful contribution that non-academic audiences will never hear.

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