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May 20, 2011

An unscientific method

Professional research papers should cut jargon, focus on simplicity.

The University of Chicago’s biology department teaches its students the foundations of science in a brilliant and innovative way. Diverging from the common high school method of mindlessly pushing through a textbook—merely shoving facts down students’ throats—the department harnesses the educational power of professional research papers. Utilizing these primary sources of literature facilitates scientific education in two main ways: 1) It offers students a method of understanding how research is conducted, immersing them into a world of inquiry without actually being in the lab, and 2) It teaches students how to read professional research papers.

One would probably think that both benefits are very valuable, and one would be correct in thinking so. But why does the latter benefit even exist? Why do we have to learn how to read professional research papers?

Excessive jargon, complex sentences, and intricate graphs and pictures that have little explanation make many research papers too difficult to understand unless one has years of background and has developed the capacity to single out dispensable, false, or ambiguous information. The reasons for the unnecessary complexity of research papers are twofold. For one, scientific publications are stringent on their page limits, word limits, and figure limits. These regulations encourage researchers to fit years of work into two or three pages, thereby leaving less room for explanations of explanations. But researchers themselves are to blame as well. Many researchers, in some sort of arrogant mind-set, attempt to impress others with complex language and jargon that portray their knowledge as more exclusive.

The fact that research is not readily accessible to the general public seems extremely contradictory to the aim of science, a discipline that promotes collaborative effort in understanding, and the easy flow of information to facilitate that understanding. Researchers write papers to provide far-reaching presentations of ideas so that others can build upon, refute, or confirm them. What’s the point of scientific endeavor if only an extremely small subset of the population can truly understand and participate in the intellectual discussion, while the rest of the population must wait for journalists who are inexperienced in scientific research to give dumbed-down reports of breakthroughs? Is that really how knowledge should permeate the country?

There is some hope, however. Science publications like the Scientific American show us that it is possible to bring complex ideas to the public without dumbing the material down. TED, the global conferences focused on ideas worth spreading, has also shown us that the general population can access technical ideas if those ideas are delivered in a simpler manner. For years now, creative, successful academics have given TED talks that condense years of research into less than 18 minutes, and their concepts are readily understood by everyone who hears them online. Granted, the audience for TED talks is different from that of academic research papers, but we can still learn from TED: There is a strong correlation between the successful spreading of ideas and the simplicity of conveyance.

For some reason, it has become commonplace to think that complexity equals quality. We must realize that this is not the case; simplicity is the key to collective intellectual development. Science should not be exclusive. Solutions to this unwarranted and unnecessary complexity could include publications relaxing their stringent content restrictions, but scientists should also take simplicity into their own hands.

I wait for the day when high school students can read professional research papers and subsequently build upon or refute what they have read with the confidence and understanding of a professional researcher. I wait for the day when researchers can publish groundbreaking papers on news media outlets for the world to read. That would not only embody true science, but it would also significantly improve the standard of our nation’s scientific education for years to come.

Suchin Gururangan is a first-year in the College.

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