Impenetrable phrases. Acronyms. Unpronounceable words that require a dictionary to understand their meaning. That would be jargon!
Some argue that jargon is a necessity given increasing disciplinary specialization: if you study nanotechnology and its use in health sciences, you likely won’t use the same words – or language – as someone who studies invertebrates in mountain streams. But jargon also works well at keeping people out, requiring that you complete a long apprenticeship before being admitted to the ‘club’.
Granting agencies are increasingly requiring researchers to include outreach and/or communication components in their research programs. And jargon definitely won’t help with that goal. While you can obfuscate and wordify in an academic journal, it’s now your responsibility to also get the point of your research across in a sound byte. Or a Tweet. Or a short online video. You get the point.
I catch myself sometimes, standing in front of one of my undergrad classes, looking out at a crowd of blank faces who are wondering what the #$%^& I just said. I mentally play back the last 2 minutes, and realize I’ve spouted a completely incomprehensible sentence that even I have trouble deciphering.
It’s a mental jab reminding me to keep things simple. And while some think that simple = dumbing down, it doesn’t have to be that way. If an entrepreneur has to whittle their ‘spiel’ down to the length of an elevator ride, a scientist should be able to do the same. It doesn’t mean that’s how you actually do the research, it’s just part of how you tell people about it. The better you understand what you’re doing, the better you’ll be able to explain it, and the more interesting ideas you may generate when talking to all these people who – in a jargon-filled life – wouldn’t have had a clue what you were doing.