Thursday, June 3, 2010

Communications Tip: Simplifying Scientific Language

Technical terms can make communication more efficient when a group understands the meaning, but they may create barriers when interacting with laypeople or researchers outside of your field. Using jargon can make your message unintelligible, or even worse, make you seem insincere.

Adjusting your style of communication is an important part of considering your audience. Remember that one word may be interpreted in a multitude of ways by different people. For example, a landscape ecologist might define a “landscape” as a mosaic that is heterogeneous with respect to at least one factor, due to effects of patterns and processes (Turner, Gardner & O’Neill, 2001; Urban, O’Neill, and Shugart, Jr., 1987). Members of the public might think of “lawns” or “landscaping” when they hear the same word. There are also many popular press references to religious, political, and socio-economic “landscapes.”

Keep your audience in mind when crafting your writing or presentation. What do you want them to know about your research, and how can they apply what they have learned to a problem or decision? Also choose your language carefully so that your important points are clear.

"Effective scientific prose is accurate, clear, economical, fluent, and graceful" (Council of Biology Editors, 1994, 101).

Here are some tips to help you simplify scientific language:

1) Rather than using technical terminology, use simpler synonyms. Also be careful of words from a thesaurus that can make your communication awkward and unclear.

do rather than accomplish, perform
part rather than component
begin rather than commence, initiate
cause rather than effectuate
measure rather than quantify
use rather than utilization
lessen the impact of rather than mitigate

2) If you must use jargon, be explicit about it. Give context and clarification for acronyms or other terms that you use.


To evaluate the effect of stresses on hydrologic systems, researchers often use topologic simulation models. These models can help them to predict the fate and transport of pollutants under various conditions.


To evaluate the effect of stresses on watersheds and river basins, including changes in the amount of precipitation or ground-water extraction rates, researchers often use simulation models based on local topography and other watershed characteristics. These models can help them to predict where pollutants will travel under various conditions.

3) Wordy phrases may also inhibit understanding. Where possible, stick to using simple, phrases that accurately convey the meaning you intended.

fewer rather than a decreased number of
because rather than accounted for by the fact
we observed rather than it was observed in the course of experiments
we do not know rather than we have insufficient knowledge
to rather than in order to
agreement rather than unanimity of opinion

4) It may be effective to use short stories or analogies. If you use this technique, be sure that your analogy is straightforward and that your audience will relate to it. Consider the following example from Stephen Schneider of Stanford University (Schwartz, 2006). If you were asked to justify a policy that mandates large energy use reductions based on a minimal increase in the likelihood of catastrophic climate change, what would be an effective method? Schneider recommended drawing a parallel with fire insurance. Many homeowners invest in fire insurance although only a fraction will actually experience a home fire.

5) Consult someone outside of your field to assess the clarity of your paper or presentation.

One again, all of us at the Communications Center would like to wish you a wonderful summer!


Council of Biology Editors, Style Manual Committee. (1994). Scientific style and format: the CBE manual for authors, editors, and publishers. 6th ed. Reston, VA: Council of Biology [Science] Editors.

Gale, C. Be clear: communicating research to lay audiences. Retrieved from

Miller, O. (2010). How to simplify your presentation without dumbing it down. Retrieved from

Schwartz, M. (2006). Scholars learn to communicate plainly the science of climate change. Stanford Report. Stanford: Stanford University. Retrieved from

Turner, M.G., Gardner, R.H., & O’Neill, R.V. (2001). Landscape Ecology in Theory and Practice: Pattern and Process. New York: Springer Science and Business Media, Inc.

Urban, D.L., O’Neill, R.V., & Shugart, Jr., H.H. (1987). Landscape ecology: a hierarchical perspective can help scientists understand spatial pattern. Bioscience, 37(2): 119-127.

--Danica Schaffer-Smith

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