The first time I read a research paper was in college. Or, what I really mean to say is that I tried to read a research paper – it felt like my brain was going to melt.
Instead of finishing reading the scientific article, I dropped the class and switched majors.
If you’ve ever tried to read primary literature and felt completely overwhelmed, you are not alone. That confusing jumble of words, numbers and charts was practically designed to be complicated and boring. But why? Read on for a little history about academic literature and its current crisis.
An ancient history of elitism
Scholars across the world need a universal language. They need a way to collaborate and teach each other. Currently, that language is jargon-heavy English.
However, not long ago, all scientific literature was written in Latin – even though Latin had been “dead” for a thousand years. And before that, when the Roman Empire was thriving, and commoners spoke Latin, academics communicated in Greek instead…
Secret professional languages were historically used to protect the average person from learning about sensitive topics – such as medical diagnoses and religious dilemmas. Unfortunately, specialized language also locks away knowledge that only the educated class can access.
As Europe discovered during the Middle Ages, this strategy can backfire. After the Roman Empire collapsed, the ability to read and write in Greek was lost. Although Europeans still possessed books containing medical and scientific knowledge, they were useless without a translator.
In this way, elite scholars helped bring about the Dark Ages… because they didn’t record their knowledge in a way that the average person could understand.
But it’s getting even worse
Perhaps scientists switched to English in the 18th century because they wanted to make their findings more accessible – but that gesture has been lost on today’s researchers.
In an era when books, the media and presidents are all using quantifiably simpler English, scientists are using increasingly complex English. That’s not just an opinion: Researchers examined hundreds of thousands of abstracts from research papers written between 1881 and 2015 and found that they have become less readable over time.
How are they less readable? Words are esoteric and contain more syllables – and sentences are longer.
Not only that, but a smaller study of neuroimaging research articles found that the more important a paper is (published in journals with a higher impact factor), the less readable it is.
It’s not that scientists are trying to confuse the general public… they aren’t thinking about the average person at all. Scientists write with a narrow audience in mind, and they use highly specialized and complex language to signal to reviewers that they are experts in their field.
We’ve all heard that the English language is evolving. However, it appears that scientific English is diverging – evolving towards increased complexity.
Lack of quality control
A quick aside: If you can’t make sense of what you’re reading, there’s also a good chance it simply doesn’t make sense. An increasingly large number of research papers are being published despite having terrible grammar.
Why the flood of poorly written papers?
For one reason, there’s no reward for a well-written paper. So long as the English is passable, further improvements on a paper’s readability will not help it get published in a better journal.
Others might point to the growing numbers of publications by non-native English speakers.
However, one of the worst problems is a spiraling number of for-profit journals popping up which publish research articles that may not have even been reviewed. A recent estimate suggests that up to 400,000 articles were published last year in these journals.
Scientific research is accelerating, and the world is drowning in papers that will go mostly unread because they are too complex or poorly written (or a combination of both). How does this impact us?
Authors suffer because, after years of hard work, their final masterpieces often go unnoticed. Most researchers avoid the limelight and rely on reputation and the media to spread their ideas. But the media covers only a tiny fraction of scientific discoveries – and they often mangle the findings.
Researchers in other fields also suffer because knowledge becomes trapped within fields… like neighboring villages that cannot communicate or trade because they speak different dialects.
And most importantly, the public suffers.
Instead of struggling to interpret research papers, most people rely on the news to deliver the most *important* scientific updates. Unfortunately, media only covers sensational findings, which often disagree with numerous reports methodically proving the opposite point.
Then, the topic is forgotten until a year or two later when a new sensational article is published that claims something entirely different. What’s the best diet to extend your life? How much alcohol is safe to drink?… The way media covers scientific research leaves the public with no choice but to mistrust scientists.
So… if you’re wondering why research papers are so hard to read, you should first congratulate yourself for your desire to read them and judge their evidence for yourself. Most people don’t even try.
Now we just need to get the message out to scientists that we are thirsting for knowledge – it just needs to be slightly more palatable.
This is the first of a series of articles about how to critically read research papers. Stay tuned for more!