Technical Writing: Scientific Readability and Academic English

Wed Mar 07, 2018 10:26 AM

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Scientific Readability and Academic English

The Study

In 2017 a team of neuroscientists at Sweden's Karolinska Institute
analyzed 709,577 article abstracts from papers published between 1881
and 2015 (most were post-1960) available online in the PubMed database.
Coverage included 123 "highly cited journals" such as Nature, Science,
JAMA, and PNAS.  Using the well-known Flesh Reading Ease (FRE) and
New Dale-Chall (NDC) formulas for text "readability" (also often used
to rate school textbooks by grade level), the scientists asked "how
the readability of an article's abstract relates to its year of
publication" (p. 1).  What they found was "a strong decreasing trend
of average yearly FRE" and a "strong increasing trend of average
yearly NDC," revealing that "the readability of [published] science
[text] is steadily decreasing" throughout the last century  
[Pontus Plaven-Sigray et al., "The readability of scientific texts
is decreasing over time," eLife, October, 2017, DOI:
10.7554/eLife.27725 ]. 

From the viewpoint of teachers trying to promote scientific literacy,
however, the cause of this decline is more interesting than the
trend itself. 

The Explanation

What is driving this prolonged, significant decrease in the 
readability of published scientific prose? Plaven-Sigray and
colleagues teased their data to narrow the specific cause.  Multiple
authorship (with its diffused responsibility for text quality) did
somewhat rise during the twentieth century, and so did average sentence
length (especially after 1960).  But neither changed enough to account for
the observed drop in readability.  That leaves the big-words/hard-words
factor in both readability formulas as the prime contributor.  The 
"average number of syllables in each word...and the percentage of 
difficult words...[both] showed pronounced increases over the years"
studied (p. 2).  This is by far the biggest reason for the decline in
scientific text readability.  

Just what "difficult" words are we talking about here?  More statistical
analysis surprisingly revealed that this was NOT an increase in genuine,
field-specific, technical terminology, the kind of terminology (like
genotype/phenotype, antigen/antibody, or velocity/acceleration) that
science teachers often work hard to get their students to deploy 

Instead, the increase in "difficult" words within scientific text over
the last century (and especially since 1960) is almost entirely caused 
by the prevalence of what the study authors somewhat misleadingly call
"general scientific jargon" (more often labeled "academic English").
They even complied a list of 2138 such words (to match or balance the
list of designated "easy words" used with the New Dale-Chall formula
(online at ).

The Role of Academic English

These are terms that any scientist or engineer regardless of technical
speciality might routinely use for any of the three NGSS science
communication practices (explain findings, argue from evidence, or
share results).  

These academic words include 'primary', 'influence', 'region', and
'underlying'--words that cut across all professions and disciplines.
They characterize what linguists call the "formal register."  Their
usage shows a steep, steady increase since 1960 in all scientific
literature, as dramatically plotted in Plaven-Sigray's Fig. 6 (p. 9).

'Register' is a musical term for the (pitch) range of a singer or
instrument (such as 'alto'), and by extension, the formality range
of a set of linguistic expressions.  Conversational register comprises
many small, easy words, contractions, and slang (good example: popular
song lyrics).  Formal (or academic) register finds writers instead using
many words from the "general scientific" list mentioned above.  Indeed,
formal proleptic (connector) words such as 'significantly' and 
'furthermore' are on that list too.  Their use in science has likewise
increased sharply in the last 50 years.

The lesson for science teachers: students need to attend to, and
become confident and comfortable with, not only the narrow technical
terms of biology, chemistry, and physics, but also the register-
framing general terms that make science discourse (and all academic
writing) "formal."  Using words like 'furthermore' is a known
challenge for ESL/ELL science students.  But it turns our that every
student must become prepared for that same challenge as science grows
less readable.
[Want more insights on technical writing in science class? See

T.R. Girill
bad_account bad_account
680 Activity Points

Wed Mar 14, 2018 1:04 PM

For a free PD workshop related to this post, check out Lawrence Livermore Natl Lab's
"Technical Writing for Science Class," July 12-13, 2018, details and registration at

T. R. Girill

T.R. Girill
bad_account bad_account
680 Activity Points

Post Reply

Forum content is subject to the same rules as NSTA List Serves. Rules and disclaimers