Is science getting harder to understand?

19 December 2017

Interview with 

William Thompson, Karolinska Institute

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Are the science papers that scientists are publishing getting harder to understand? Chris Smith heard how one scientist, William Thompson, thinks they are…

William - We were four PhD students frustrated about reading different scientific texts. We had journal clubs together and there was particularly one person that we were reading repeatedly that we thought was hard to read. We joked originally, has this person always been hard to read or is this something which is developing as the ideas developed?

We realised we could quantify this, and as soon as we realised we could quantify it for one person, we realised we could apply the same tools and get a much larger corpus, which was over 700,000 scientific abstracts. We made a list of 123 highly cited journals from 12 different fields, then we tried to quantify the readability. So, for example, the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per words and tried to make an estimate about how hard it is to read.

Chris - What time frame did this span?

William - The earliest article was 1881, but most of the scientific literature started to appear around 1960 that we could get our hands on and then up to 2015.

Chris - When you run the text from those abstracts through the analysers and ask it to score the language that’s being used, what trend emerges?

William - We found a large downward trend in readability, and that means that texts are getting harder to read now compared to previously. We were surprised at how strong the trend was.

Chris - You looked at a whole raft of different journals which means that you could consider different scientific disciplines, so are any disciplines particularly prone to this or is it that all scientists across the board now have a tendency to over complexification and use of long multisyllabic words where simple terms might actually be feasible instead?

William - I think the important take-home message was that all the fields we looked at were getting worse. There were some differences, for example, clinical medicine was the least worst, and molecular biology  was worst and one of the metrics. But I don’t think the emphasis should be placed on that, I think the emphasis should be placed on all fields were getting worse.

Chris - How do you account for this?

William - With the data we had we tried to explore two possible reasons: one of them was: did the number of authors impact the readability because the number of authors has been growing over time. You often see four or five authors on a paper today, where in 1960 it was one or two. The number of authors does have an impact on the readability so if there’s more authors it’s generally less readable but that doesn’t explain the trend.

An additional hypothesis we had was that scientists may be drawing from an increasingly common vocabulary. We tried to see what were the 3,000 most common words that scientists use, then we split this list of 3,000 words up into several categories to isolate a category we called “general scientific jargon.” And these words were on the increase, scientists were drawing from this vocabulary of general scientific jargon.

Chris - Do you think it really matters though that some papers are a bit impenetrable because some people could argue well, I’m a molecular biologist and I don’t really care that much if an astrophysicist can’t read my molecular biology paper?

William - I’m very sympathetic to that view but, at the same time, this entire endeavour started when PhD students within the field of neuroscience were having a hard time reading some neuroscience, so it can hamper people within the subject itself. Then, in a much wider context, science is not just for scientists. People should be able to use scientific knowledge to make society better. If the wider parts of society cannot access papers such as scientific journalists or policy makers, if they’re having a hard time interpreting or understanding scientific text, that’s going to mean that science can’t be used as effectively in a wider context.

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