on translating scientist-ese
May 19, 2009
Scientists aren’t actually bad at writing. No, I’m not trying to put myself out of a job – they still need me! 🙂 But the more impenetrable scientist-ese I read, the better I understand that what looks like gibberish to outsiders is not a symptom of bad communication – specialized, maybe, but not ineffective.
I remember the first few times as a student I was able to read a scientific paper and explain to someone else, with analogies and simple language, just what it was actually saying; this, I thought, must be a useful skill. Because the article I was translating sure wasn’t readable on its own.
In a sense, that’s what my job is now; but it’s actually easier than that. I don’t have to sit around with a jargon-filled paper in one hand and a medical dictionary in the other, because the first step in an assignment is to call up the person who did the research, and have a quasi-normal, human-to-human conversation about their work. While it’s important to be able to read their papers so you have smart questions to ask, that’s only one part of the job. (“Duh, what was that paper about?” would work about as well in an interview as in my mandatory journal club class in grad school: not at all)
Some scientists are better than others at this sort of plain conversation. Generally, anybody who has run their own lab for decades has explained their work to countless funders, conference attendees, and prospective students. Those who are earlier in their career, or do less cross-discipline work, seem to be the hardest to talk to. They’ve learned how to communicate with colleagues in their field, but haven’t figured out yet how to get others interested in their work.
I’ve often heard people – some of them scientists, some of them readers who are baffled by scientific papers – claim that scientists are bad at writing or bad at communicating. That’s rarely true. The issue is that communicating with scientists in your field, and communicating with people who aren’t, are two very different skills.
Scientists are taught to speak with precision. Like when I took my first serious biology class in college – for the first time, our lab reports were expected to read like scientific papers. We were to speak precisely: say, not about the enzyme “doing” something, but about what the effects of such-and-such were in terms of Michaelis-Menten kinetics. Work in the multisyllabic buzzwords from class, we learned, because those are the words that actually mean something.
Those big words aren’t “sloppy thinking” or “bad writing”; in fact, each one calls to mind – for the right audience – whole areas of scientific discipline. Hepatobiliary disease? Oh yeah, the reader might say, I remember that whole course I took in hepatobiliary disease. It triggers memories that a simpler synonym (liver disease) may not. Are you developing efficacious treatments for a disease? That brings to mind the medical concept of efficacy, which is a little different than saying that a treatment is “effective” (or “works good”).
Like any good buzzword, the point of most scientific jargon is to give a name to a large or complicated phenomenon. So it makes sense that scientist-ese doesn’t consist of patient explanations in small words; rather, it’s a string of multisyllabic buzzwords meant to shovel information past the reading scientist’s eyeballs. When those buzzwords have meaning to you, this makes for a very skimmable text.
The best examples of shoveling are in the introduction of scientific papers. The intro sets the stage for the research by quickly blowing by the initial problem, the state of research to date, and the reasons why anybody should care. If you’re in roughly the right field, all the buzzwords will be familiar to you and you can get on to reading the research. The situation is similar to a recipe, a knitting pattern full of abbreviations, computer program code, whatever – if you know what the abbreviated concepts are (“form this type of loop on your needle by moving the yarn like so…”) you can breeze right by the “K 30” line and get what you need out of the more interesting parts.
In fact, the really interesting parts of scientific papers, like the interesting parts of recipes or code or knitting patterns, tend to be written in plainer english – because that’s the part where you have to explain what’s going on.