Less Jargon Could Increase Your Work's Citation Potential

By Kylie Wolfe

Words matter. They help us form and communicate new thoughts, shaping our interactions in person and on paper. Scientists, in particular, are challenged with relaying their findings in a way that promotes widespread understanding.

To convey a complex scientific idea, you might lean on words and phrases that are concise and precise. These trade-specific terms, known as jargon, might be effective in your field, but aren’t necessarily accessible to all audiences. According to a new study, word choice may even affect how frequently a published paper is cited by other researchers.

Language Lessons

During a presentation or casual conversation with a coworker, a specific subset of vocabulary words might be suitable, but the same can’t be said when trying to increase a manuscript’s readability and reach.

A study conducted at the National Research Council in Pallanza, Italy, concluded that less jargon in a paper’s title and abstract correlates to greater citations. These findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

To reach this consensus, Alejandro Martínez, evolutionary biologist, and Stefano Mammola, ecologist, generated a list of 1,500 cave-science terms and created a computer program to calculate how often these words were used in published research. They assessed 21,486 manuscripts, all of which were cave studies, and found that those without jargon in their titles were cited more than 450 times. The same set of papers used less than one percent jargon in their abstracts. The citation frequency dropped substantially when jargon was used more than one percent of the time.

"When citations are used as a measure of success or relevance, mastering the balance of word choice is critical."

Making Science Accessible

After months of research, you want readers to engage with your work: read it, remember it, and, ultimately, cite it. When citations are used as a measure of success or relevance, mastering the balance of word choice is critical.

To express an idea with fewer instances of jargon, consider your audience. Your readers might range from everyday people to experts in your field. And because specialized terms can remind readers of what they don’t know instead of what they do, too much jargon can be discouraging.

Cast a wider net by defining terms and using simple phrases that explain concepts and processes. Strive for clarity, especially in the title and abstract of a piece. The reader’s understanding of these sections will determine whether or not they continue reading.

Jargon isn’t always undesirable though. A 2019 study evaluated nearly 20,000 grant proposals and found that it can actually help with funding. The fewer common words that were used, the greater the grant opportunities. No matter how you choose to express your ideas, know that word variation can lead to better communication. Jargon serves a purpose in each field, but only when it’s used in the right context and with the appropriate audience.

Communication Goals

Don’t let jargon limit your paper’s citation potential. Create accessible content that readers can digest, keeping in mind what words they'll understand and how you can break down larger ideas.

When you’re ready to publish your work, take a second look. Ask yourself how you can cut back on technical terms and broaden your audience. When these words are unavoidable, try restricting their use to later sections of the paper. It could not only improve the number of citations you receive, but help you communicate your work more effectively to anyone who clicks and scrolls.

Kylie Wolfe is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.

This content was inspired, in part, by "Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists," New York Times, April 9, 2021; and "Want other scientists to cite you? Drop the jargon," Science, April 6, 2021.