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Want other scientists to cite you? Drop the jargon

If you want your work to be highly cited, here’s one simple tip that might help: Steer clear of discipline-specific jargon in the title and abstract. That’s the conclusion of a new study of roughly 20,000 published papers about cave science, a multidisciplinary field that includes researchers who study the biology, geology, paleontology, and anthropology of caves. The most highly cited papers didn’t use any terms specific to cave science in the title and kept jargon to less than 2% of the text in the abstract; jargon-heavy papers were cited far less often.

“I was really, really interested in what the study did,” says Nandita Basu, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who serves as an editor-in-chief at the Journal of Hydrology. “We all talk about jargon—'it’s not a good idea to use jargon’—but to quantitatively see that in terms of your citation count is really interesting.” She’d love to see the study repeated for her discipline. “I think this would be a universal finding,” she says.

Hazel Barton, a professor at the University of Akron who studies microbes in caves, hopes the findings serve as a wake-up call for all jargon-loving scientists—especially those in her discipline. “I’m pretty amused by cave science being pulled out as one of the sciences to make an example of,” she says. “I’m sure there’s a lot of jargon in other fields, but in my field people seem to be really hung up on clinging to the jargon. … It drives me nuts.” For example, Barton once tried in vain to convince a scientist who was having trouble securing funding to omit “karst”—a term describing certain landscapes where caves are commonly found—from the title of his grant proposals because some reviewers wouldn’t know what it meant. He pushed back, arguing, “That’s what I do—they need to understand that.”

The lead author of the new study—a cave researcher himself—used to gravitate toward jargon as well. At the beginning of his career, Alejandro Martínez peppered his papers with “fancy words,” he says, because that’s what others in his field did and he thought it would impress his colleagues. But, he continues, his work wasn’t getting cited. “I was really not getting the impact that I was expecting.” Martínez—who now works as a researcher at Italy’s Water Research Institute—has since changed course and now makes a point of framing his research so it will interest a broader audience, a strategy that forces him to cut down on jargon, he says.

Martínez decided to collect data on the use of jargon in his field last year when COVID-19 lockdowns kept him out of the lab and he was looking for other projects to work on. He teamed up with a colleague and fellow cave researcher, Stefano Mammola, and together they scoured the glossaries of cave science textbooks and review articles to compile a list of roughly 1500 words and acronyms they considered jargon. Then, they calculated the proportion of jargon in the titles and abstracts of roughly 20,000 papers published from 1991 to 2019 that involve the study of caves. When jargon amounted to 1% or more of the abstract, there was a steep drop-off in the number of citations the paper received, controlling for the paper’s age. They found the same pattern in cave science journals and multidisciplinary journals. “The pattern is … really, really clear,” says Martínez, whose study was published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Given the findings, the authors advise scientists to relegate jargon to later sections of their papers—for instance, the methods section, which is more likely to be read by specialists. “I think it’s actually useful to … do the exercise of trying to think about your research without these type of words,” Martínez says.

Adrian Barnett, a statistics professor at Queensland University of Technology who has studied acronym use in scientific papers, acknowledges the trade-offs at play. “Good writing takes time and bad writing still gets published,” Barnett says. “So there’s little incentive for researchers to spend time improving the style of their paper.” But, he continues, the new study “hints that better writing has a delayed payoff of more citations.”

Still, not everyone agrees with the study’s conclusions. “I do not think cave scientists should aim to use less jargon in their publications,” Alexander Klimchouk—a leading scientist at Ukraine’s Institute of Geological Sciences who Barton describes as “one of the top cave researchers in the world”—wrote in an email to Science Careers. “Specialized terminology (jargon) allows [researchers] to express meanings and concepts more precisely, richly. … As a scientist in geospeleology, I should not aim that my research is readily understood by a zoologist.” Klimchouk’s most highly cited publication—a report cited 430 times—is entitled Hypogene speleogenesis: hydrogeological and morphogenetic perspective

Whether jargon is appropriate “really depends on your audience,” says Shannon Willoughby, a physics professor at Montana State University who received funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation to develop a science communication training program for graduate students. “If I’m speaking with another physicist then of course I’m going to use a bunch of jargon and not think about it, but if … I’m talking to my astronomy [undergraduate] students, then I’m going to use a fundamentally different language.” She also tones down her jargon when she’s speaking with colleagues in engineering because she’s found that they often use different words to describe the same concept, which can be “a hindrance to working with other people. … We might be like ships passing in the night, trying to understand the same idea.”

As part of Willoughby's science communication training program, she and her colleagues developed a computer script that calculates a jargon score for a piece of writing—a scientific paper or the script for a talk, for instance. “One of the outputs is … a list of words that might be jargon, so you might want to revisit those particular words,” Willoughby says. “Reducing jargon is generally going to be a good thing.” An alternate strategy, she adds, is to make a point of explaining the term when you first use it.

Barton agrees, saying the cave science study clearly illuminates the benefits of reducing jargon for scientists in her field. “I do love the opportunity to have this paper and kind of wave it about,” she says. “I am kind of really looking forward to an ‘I told you so’ moment.”