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Science is getting harder to read

Science is becoming more difficult to understand due to the sheer number of acronyms, long sentences, and impenetrable jargon in academic writing.

Not only does such overcomplicated language alienate non-scientists and the media, it can also make life difficult for junior researchers and those transitioning to new fields.

Adrian Barnett, a statistician at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, describes the amount of new and obscure acronyms used in scientific papers today as “exhausting” – and it’s only getting worse.

While some acronyms are useful because they are widely understood (AIDS, HIV, DNA), many hinder readability because they are harder to absorb than if the term were written out in full.

Take this sentence from a 2002 paper studying the bone strength of young athletes, for example: "RUN had significantly (p < 0.05) greater size-adjusted CSMI and BSI than C, SWIM, and CYC; and higher size, age, and YST-adjusted CSMI and BSI than SWIM and CYC."

“Scientists love to write these acronyms,” says Barnett, “but other scientists don’t necessarily pick them up, and they end up hanging around and causing a lot of confusion.”

Barnett and his colleagues analyzed the use of acronyms in more than 24 million paper titles and 18 million abstracts indexed by the biomedical database PubMed between 1950 and 2019.

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