With social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube and Facebook, more scientists and science hobbyists are entering the scene as overall promoters of scientific advancement.
Science advocates have made us more aware of the effects of pandemic, climate change, and advances in medicine. They have helped promote scientific equality and inspired young minds to be more curious. They have also observed and are trying to change the issues with scientific inaccessibility.
In the scientific, and really much of the academic industry, there seems to be two common barriers to public accessibility: the pay-to-play culture (pay to publish and pay to access), and readability.
Already, the public has made huge strides toward pushing open access publishing. Open Access journals such as PLOS One have also helped propel this effort.
While the open access movement has come a long way in recent years, it still has a long way to go before it really knocks down the walls of science. Even when those walls come down, there is still one more obstacle: the decreasing readability of scientific publications.
Decreasing readability is ultimately a language barrier to information. The term readability just refers to how easy a piece of literature is to read. A lexicon exclusive only to one sub-discipline that goes untranslated to the public leaves the knowledge at risk of becoming undiscovered. This risk is important to consider because it contradicts the entire goal of publishing, which is to perpetuate scientific information and discovery throughout the entire population.
However, this barrier is old news. While the entire industry talks about this topic, and many advocate for the need to write in a more straightforward fashion, it’s just not happening.
Interestingly, in the United States, we all tend to agree that improvements to readability of scientific literature are necessary. Many scientific voices are calling for a change, encouraging each other to keep our writing more inclusive. So why hasn’t it changed?
In 1992 Donald P. Hayes published “The growing inaccessibility of science” in Nature. Later, in 2003, Nature published “Clear as mud,” which raised the issue again. Using Hayes’ and colleague Loreen T. Wolfer’s work, “Clear as mud” showed us that research writing was still opaque, and continued to increase in complexity since the previous review.
Since Hayes’ and Wolfer’s initial and subsequent review, other articles have popped up over the years with evidence of the same issue.
Have you ever highlighted a portion of text in Microsoft Word, checked the spelling and then checked the reading level? Microsoft Word uses the Flesch Readability Formula to determine the reading ease of your draft.
The Flesch Readability grade level is determined by the formula: RE = 206.835 – (1.015 x ASL) – (84.6 x ASW)
- RE: readability ease
- ASL: Average sentence length
- ASW: Average number of syllables per word
The higher the RE number is, the easier it is to read the given text.
The Flesch scale is one that many of us have interacted with. However, there are limitations to how well the Flesch scale works. Nature’s “Clear as mud” article mentioned the Flesch scale doesn’t account for long but well-constructed sentences that easily lead the reader to a conclusion. According to the Flesh Readability Formula, those sentences would still be considered complex. Likewise, short constructed sentences that aren’t straightforward will score better according to this formula.
Donald Hayes’ and Loreen Wolfer’s Readability Studies
Therefore, rather than using the familiar Flesch formula, Hayes evaluated the frequency of words in common, one linguists agree is a good determiner of readability. Words in common are words that we tend to use regularly. These aren’t the words we search our minds for, or have to look in the thesaurus for, or have encountered maybe only thrice in our lifetime. Basically, words in common, are our everyday words. A hypothetical example would be using “drunk” instead of “inebriated.”
They came up with a scale called LEX, which is based on the “American Heritage Word Frequency Book.” Years of work helped them rank everything from a farmer’s conversation with cows to common newspapers, to children’s readers to scientific manuscripts.
The higher the score, the harder something is to read. Newspapers ranked zero, and served as a benchmark for comparison due to their stability in readability and writing style since the 1700s. Anything that ranked zero or very close to it (whether negative or positive) was about as easy to read as the average newspaper. Scores that were a high positive were considered significantly more difficult to read.
One of their research projects involved reviewing scientific manuscripts published in Nature, Scientific American and Science. Their research revealed the following facts:
- From 1869 – 1947, Nature’s readability ranking was at about the same level as an average newspaper.
- After 1947, Nature became increasingly difficult to read with each passing decade.
- Scientific American:
- From 1845 – 1970, Scientific American either had the same readability ranking as the average newspaper or was right below.
- After 1970, LEX scores began increasing, demanding more expertise for readability.
- As Scientific American’s difficulty increased to a LEX score of about 15, subscription rates dramatically decreased. In later years, when the LEX score dropped to 10, subscription rates significantly increased.
- In 1883, Science had a LEX score of -8.5, making it easier to read than the average newspaper.
- After 1960, Science became increasingly difficult.
Like the Flesch formula, LEX is not fully accurate. To completelyquantify readability, there would have to be robust algorithms and softwarethat accounts for twoother major components of reading comprehension: syntactic (wordarrangement) and semantic (the meaning in language). These were components thatHayes, Wolfer and other scale developers could not measure.
5 reasons why scientific writing remains opaque
There are five primary reasons why the complexity of scientific and academic writing remains difficult to read and why difficulty has increased over the years:
1. The editorial selection process
According to Hayes and Wolfer, one of the reasons why academic writing has increasingly become opaque is due to the publication process itself. The selection process is the gatekeeper for the kinds of material being published, the number of publications per subject area, what gets featured, etc.
Hayes noted in his “The growing inaccessibility of science” article that LEX scores increased when Nature and Science shifted to publishing less natural history papers and publishing more natural science papers. Natural history papers tend to be more descriptive and therefore easier to understand.Natural science papers, on the other hand, are usually more analytical which contributes to a more challenging vocabulary.
2. Niche subsets of science
Many articles advocating a culture of reading accessibility mentioned one of the reasons this has been so hard to fix is because science continues to branch into new disciplines. As each subset of science becomes more refined, new vocabulary and methodology surfaces. Plant biology, for example, will have unique terms exclusive only to plant biology. Likewise, bioinformatics will have terminology and acronyms specific to that field.
3. The challenge of translation and the curse of knowledge
Every field develops its own lexicon. The military, for example, is known for its long list of acronyms. Each branch even has its own unique list of specific acronyms. “Ask your FRG leader for AOS information,” might be something an army military dependent (direct family member of someone is serving or has served in the US military) would hear.
We get very caught up in our own jargon, that we freely use it with others outside of our field without realizing it.
When it comes to academic writing, we often think that everyone in our specific field, no matter the branch, will follow along without trouble. But as the example above illustrates, someone in the Coast Guard (a different branch of the US military) might be unfamiliar with the quoted statement.
Empathy outside of our field is one aspect of translational challenges. The unrealized assumption that the people we’re writing for has the same background as ourselves is the curse of knowledge. Even when we become a little aware of the knowledge gap, simplifying the information is still challenging because simplification requires a person to put himself or herself in a position that he or she has no experience with, or the experience has long been forgotten.
4. Stylistic mimicry
Our influences usually determine our behavior. The way we talk and interact is often shaped by who we surround ourselves with. Likewise, aspiring writers will pick up on the writing styles of established works.
Newer researchers whose examples come from their mentors’ sources, will begin to model their own writing style from those examples. The opaque style of academic writing gets perpetuated by example and the refinement of those examples as new researchers become seasoned ones.
Elitism (or a high level of pride in our work), was another reason cited as why academic writing continues to remain complicated.
It’s not that researchers always set out to intentionally write at a higher level. Instead, the idea of elitism is subtler. Most of it is attributed back to the curse of knowledge (see reason 3), editorial gatekeeping where researchers are forced to write in a very serious style, and the natural pride of a person’s hard work.
In the US, this is becoming less of a problem. Academics respect the reasons for straightforward writing. This is not the case for other parts of the world.
In an Atlantic article, Deborah Bosley, a clear-writing consultant described a presentation she gave in France where audience members told her “academics shouldn’t write to express, they should write to impress.”
With the growing demand for change, will scientific writing improve? Most experts are optimistic. Efforts are already being made to change this. Journals offer editing services. Likewise, some institutions have on-site editors who review papers specifically for readability.
As we continue to teach each other how to right clearly, we might see Nature publish an update showing us that research manuscripts are becoming more readable.
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Hayes, D. P., Wolfer, L. T., & Wolfe, M. F. (1996). Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores. American Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 489–508. doi: 10.3102/00028312033002489
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