No matter what field you might be in, scientific research probably ranks pretty high in operational priorities. After all, it's science that tells you, for example, that a product is safe or even viable to manufacture. But a new study suggests that many of the abstracts people are writing for their studies are no longer readable, creating a troubling divide between those who have found out and those who need to know.

How much readability is declining

As Holly Else of Times for Higher Education reports, researchers from Sweden's Karolinska Institute downloaded 707,000 scientific abstracts published in biomedical journals between 1881 and 2015. Looking specifically at the number of syllables per word and the number of words per sentence, as well as the percentage of predefined "difficult words" per sentence, they found that more than a quarter of scientific abstracts published in 2015 had a readability beyond graduate-level English. Comparatively, just 16 percent had that level of readability in 1960.

What makes the findings so worrisome

As James Hartley, emeritus professor of psychology at Keele University, points out, abstracts generally are harder to read than the full body of a research paper. But the findings of the study are concerning in part because it's the abstracts people initially read to figure out if they should read the full work. If people can't really understand what's in the abstracts, they might not realize how relevant given studies are to their own work. Secondly, other researchers might have difficulty replicating the studies due to a lack of clarity in the writing. And if others can't replicate what you do, it's harder for others to take your work seriously. Complex text also slows down reading, which can delay verification and sharing of the study.

The intellectual loss potential described above is harsh enough, but keep in mind, even one research study can run into the millions of dollars to complete. When businesses or other organizations complete research, only to have a limited few understand the study and put it to work on a large scale, that financial investment has a far smaller return than if the public seized on the information. Consider, too, that the money available through grants and other sources is often limited. If investors or grantors cannot grasp what the results of studies were, they're less likely to renew those awards.

What's causing the trouble

William Hedley Thompson, one of the authors of the study, says that both the increasing use of general scientific jargon and rising levels of co-authorship are to blame for increasing lack of readability. That, of course, begs the question as to what's leading people to use jargon and collaborate more. A number of issues could be contributing, such as

  • The desire to use accepted terminology to gain acceptance among professional peers
  • Fear that the use of colloquial terms might bring unwanted ambiguity or connotations
  • Immersion within a field to the degree where the professional doesn't realize the degree of jargon they're using
  • The desire to save time, as jargon can summarize larger concepts
  • The desire to appear superior or more powerful
  • Increased technology breaking down communication barriers
  • Increased acceptance of mergers, acquisitions and partnerships
  • Lack of funding or resources making pooling resources necessary
  • Heightened social pressures to publish to prove professionalism or experience
  • Heightened work and home pressures that limit the time available from each individual to devote to study

In other words, it's far from a simple issue, and it likely doesn't have an easy fix. But innovation has a direct relationship with these communications. If companies want to stay ahead of competitors and inspire consumers, they'd be wise to connect their researchers with communications professionals and make K-I-S-S (keep it simple, stupid) their mantra.