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Technical Writing: Scientific Readability and Academic English

T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. trgirill@acm.org 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  correctly.   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 https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.27725.023 ). 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 http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html ] 

T.R. Girill
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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 https://education.llnl.gov/programs/teacher-research-academies/technical-writing T. R. Girill

T.R. Girill
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