To Jargon or not to Jargon


Contributed by Elisha Wood-Charlson

Jargon, as defined by Google, consists of “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” So, you can imagine why jargon is a natural target for science communication training and workshops. Hey, science jargon even has its own April Fool’s spoof article.

Well, as it turns out, defining jargon and identifying jargon create a bit of inherent irony. A word is only considered ‘jargon’ when it isn’t well understood, so when are science words ‘jargon’ and when are they not? Google’s definition suggests that jargon can be specific to a group, and not necessarily restricted to a technical field. In addition, Google gives the entertaining synonym of “slang”, which begs the question – are scientists actually speaking our own form of “Science Jive”?

One of the most challenging parts of science communication is understanding your audience well enough to choose vocabulary that will communicate your science accurately while still getting your message across. Therefore, we need to start thinking about our “Science Jive” in layers. How far removed is our target audience from our science field?

The Russian Doll of Science Jive
Nesting Dolls (Photo Credit: James Lee)

Nesting Dolls (Photo Credit: James Lee)

As with all science communication efforts, you must first understand your audience(s) before you determine how much jargon you can layer on. The smallest, innermost ring is your peer group (you are the doll in the center). Your peer audience will include members of your lab group, your collaborators, and even your fellow participants in a domain-specific session at a conference. Almost everything in this ring may be considered jargon to a general audience, who resides in the largest, outermost doll layer. And, although some of the jargon translations from the far inner ring to the far outer ring may be the most challenging (discussed later), the dolls in the middle are where things get really interesting. How well do you know your audience two rings removed? For example, I recently attended the 2015 AAAS conference in San Jose, CA. Having never attended an AAAS conference before, I was surprised at the breadth of science topics presented. They ranged from looking at the effect of epigenetics on the brain to 3-D printing of 4-D mathematical models to microbial oceanography, my personal ring of Science Jive. So, how do you know when to jargon and when not to jargon?

The best way to figure out your audience is to understand where they exist in the science communication space. Do they read popular science articles, like those in Scientific American or Discover? If so, getting familiar with those journals (if you aren’t already) will help you determine which jargon level you should speak to. For example, in situations where “addition of viral concentrates resulted in decreased photosynthetic activity” might not work, something like “after adding more viruses, the cultures started dying” might be perfect. From another perspective, if you are writing something for a government office, you might consider getting in touch with whomever is in charge of science-related issues. Depending on their background, they may only be one or two jargon rings away. Or, if their background isn’t in the sciences, they may comfortably reside in the far outer general public ring.

Communicating Science Jive to the Outer Doll

Have you tried explaining your research to a family member? Megumi Chikamoto had a great post (4 Feb 2015) on Real Science at SOEST! blog about jargon, relating to her 7 year old son and making her message more understandable to a broader audience.

Translating jargon takes a bit of trial and error. Pick a prominent jargon word in your specialization and start trying out alternative vocabulary with the lab down the hall, fellow students at a departmental seminar, or with other science departments that meet up for pick-up soccer games after work. In the end, you may still end up with a word(s) that can’t be captured at the level of accuracy you require. Another strategy is to develop an analogy for your research. Can you capture the dispersal model or biogeochemical flux pathway in a metaphor or image? For example, Donn Viviani, a graduate student in C-MORE, is able to transform his research into the simple process of making a cup of tea!

In the end, only you can decide when to jargon and when not to jargon, and it will take practice. However, there should also be a collective effort by every science specialization to establish some translated terms that are acceptable replacements for their domain. In some areas, such as climate change, this is already happening. But we shouldn’t wait for a social movement to motivate us! Scientists are people too, and we should be making an effort to communicate using language that can be understood by our audiences.


Other resources
Scientific Jargon, Thompson Writing Program handout by Jordana Rosenberg 2012
Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public, log post by Andrew David Thaler at Southern Fried Science
Words Matter, AGU blog post by Callan Bentley

Elisha M. Wood-Charlson has a PhD in marine science, and has worked in a variety of research areas including coral symbioses, marine viruses, and viruses in corals. She is currently testing out life as a science communicator and is finding the creative latitude enjoyable. She works for the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) as an educator, designing #scicomm training for graduate students, postdocs, and early career researchers (check out the new Science Communication Portfolio training guide on the SOEST website!). She is also managing the EarthCube Oceanography and Geobiology Environmental ‘Omics (ECOGEO) Research Coordination Network (RCN), which demands structured communication between the scientists asking the difficult ‘omics questions and the bioinformaticians making the tools to help answer them.

Q&A Part 3: You got in! How to survive grad school

Thanks for continuing to read about the “Path to Graduate School.”  Today completes this theme and the last 2 questions of Part 3: “You got in! How to survive grad school!” We hope this has been helpful to all of you!

Question 14: What sort of career planning and/or professional development will I need to be doing while I’m in grad school?

Attending conferences, workshops, and seminars seems to be the key to networking with other professionals:

“Your advisor will be a great resource for this sort of thing. Hopefully they will mentor and counsel you regarding your professional development and career goals while you work towards your degree. You can also take your own initiative by working to attend conferences, publish your work, and attend workshops and seminars that are geared towards proposal writing, teaching, and researching different topics.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Attending conferences and workshops are a great way to network with people that have similar interests in similar fields. I volunteered to be an organizer for a major international Ocean Sciences conference and it has been great for my professional development. Volunteer to review papers for a journal you appreciate.” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Mostly building some contact network.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Talk to your advisor or chair about what’s important in the field. Networking with people in the field.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

“Go to conferences, give talks, do outreach and education, go to workshops” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

Also, put yourself out there and take opportunities to give talks and apply for fellowships:

“Public speaking/communication skills and writing skills are the areas where grad students seem to need the most improvement. Take classes and go to workshops that will help you improve these skills. Volunteer to give talks. Apply for various awards, fellowships, because these applications will help you communicate the objectives of your research clearly.” – Myriam Telus

“Looking to your future can be terrifying, but you need to plan ahead. Apply for that grant, look into PhD’s early in your masters, and talk with professors about the subjects that really interest you. They might have suggestions about programs or professors with similar interests.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

However, since we’re all busy, target your professional development towards your career goals:

“It’s always good to keep in mind what your goal after grad school is – if you are interested in teaching, get some teaching experience. If it’s communication, practice science communication. If it’s being a professor in an academic institution, network and talk to other professors, set up collaborations, and go to conferences. Tailor your professional development to what sort of activities will give you the skills you need for your career. Grad school is already extremely time consuming, so be choosy about how you spend your time” – Shimi Rii 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

Finally, get started early on preparing your resume materials:

“Development of CV, cover letter, and resume materials.
Writing skills, knowledge about best practices for publishing and reviewing manuscripts and writing proposals.
Teaching experience.
Professional meeting presentations, domestic and international (oral and poster presentations)
Leadership and management skills
Improving communication skills to inform diverse and broad audiences.
Involvement in departmental, school-wise, or societal level service.” – Allison Fong 6th Year PhD Biological Oceanography – Microbial Ecology

Question 15: Should I become a Teaching Assistant (T.A.) or a Research Assistant (R.A.)? Is this enough to live off of or should I get a student loan?

First, ask around and get information:

“There are many options to get paid in graduate school, talk to people and investigate” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“T.A. and R.A. salaries vary from one department to another. In my situation, both T.A. and R.A. salaries are enough to live comfortably on. I would research the funding provided by the department you want to work for, and then make your decision based on that information.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

Here at SOEST, it is definitely enough to live on:

“TA or RA all the way! If you’re responsible with your money and live in a reasonable rent apartment you can live off of it for the entirety of your degree without getting a student loan.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

“Don’t get a loan! You don’t need one! We make enough to live off of and even have fun once in a while 😉 Just live within your means and accept that you’ll be living a life that is rich and fulfilling in many ways, even if you don’t have a lot of spare cash. You won’t be living in a palace with an ocean view, but who wants to be that pretentious, anyway? Sharing a place with roommate(s) makes things a lot cheaper, too. *Caveat: Getting to Hawaii, or back to the mainland, to start school is the exception–you’ll have to hand out a wad of cash for plane tickets, security deposits, etc. before your salary kicks in, and if you don’t have savings or financially supportive family members then a small loan could potentially be necessary.” – Emily First 3rd Year PhD Experimental Petrology

“R.A and T.A should be enough to live off of, unless you have a family to support. Then I don’t really know.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Try to live off of a T.A. or R.A. and only get a loan if you have to. Some departments pay better than others.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

Some sound advice about T.A. or R.A., if you have a choice:

“The way it is set up here, you can live off either, but TA-ships are time consuming and will probably extend the total time to graduation if you choose to do it for multiple semesters. I recommend applying for fellowships and grants to get your own funding.” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“A T.A. is great for gaining teaching experience and looks good on a C.V. if you want a job that involves teaching (such as being a professor) after you graduate. But it can be a lot of work, taking time away from your research, which is ultimately what you need to complete to graduate. An R.A. could also turn into work away from your own research, but ideally, an R.A. will actually fund your research–that is, the research you’re getting paid to do is also the research that you’re doing for your thesis/dissertation. I have an R.A., and I’ve found it’s enough to live off of and have not needed to get any loans.” – Katie Smith 5th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

Thanks again for your readership and participation.  Any comments or suggestions are always welcome!