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The Decreasing Accessibility of Science
Dry, dense, and formal language that is named by Doubleday & Conne as “The Official Style” is actively hindering the very point of scientific literature: communication. Yet increasingly, the official style is becoming more “official”.
10 March, 2021

In the words of the late Carl Sagan: “Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking”. Science dictates the way we live our lives, from the technologies it introduces to our convenience, to literally extending our lifespan. However, lately science has been decreasing its accessibility to its newest innovations, research, and principles. A number of recent papers analysed and highlighted the increasing difficulty of the readability of scientific literature, bringing to light the issue of publishing and relaying science from the experts to the people.

The use of complicated language, unnecessary jargon, and increasingly uncommon acronyms in the writing of scientific literature is making access to science more difficult. The misuse of acronyms is acutely highlighted in the meta-analysis of acronyms in scientific literature. The paper analysed the use of acronyms in over 24.5 million published articles between 1950 and 2019, looking for the usage of acronyms and their recurrence in other works. Overall, it was found that while over a million unique acronyms were used in those works, the reuse of those same acronyms steadily declined from 1950. The article suggests that the reason for this decline is that acronyms are almost seen as branding in science, as if creating new acronyms will be attributed to the original writer(s) of the article. Furthermore, the paper highlights that only around 2,000 acronyms (only 0.2% of all acronyms identified) were repeatedly reused, whereas 79% of all acronyms were used no more than 10 times. All in all, although not the greatest obstacle to legibility and accessibility, acronyms hinder the flow of text and diminish the overall reading experience for the reader.

In addition to acronyms, the style of writing itself impedes the understanding of the content and the engagement of the reader. Dry, dense, and formal language that is named by Doubleday & Connel 2017[2] as “The Official Style” is actively hindering the very point of scientific literature: communication. Yet increasingly, the official style is becoming more “official”. This style of writing is often encouraged by convention, and scientists are feeling pressured into writing using it since it’s generally thought that scientific literature is only for scientists. The paper proposes a break from convention and urges scientists to explore and experiment with various writing styles to remain both objective and accurate, yet engaging and interesting. However, it admits that breaking convention is a goal that is achieved through collaboration and time. 

Furthermore, this already tedious style of writing is plagued with the increased use of unnecessary jargon. Sigray et al. performed a meta-analysis of over 700,000 papers, using the objective Flesch Reading Ease measurement (lower scores indicate lower readability) and found that the number of papers with a score under 0 increased from 14% in 1960 to 22% in 2015. This is a massive increase in the number of papers that even college graduates are not rated to be able to comprehend. An overall lower score for scientific writing as a whole largely indicates that science has been decreasing its accessibility. This is a problem that affects many aspects of the communication of science, as this kind of writing impedes access to not only people that do not deal with science but scientists themselves. Difficult writing prohibits easy verification of results, results in more mistakes/points of failure in communication, and overall turns more people away from science as a field of interest.

Although the situation may sound dire, there is some hope for those who intend to delve into the scientific aspect of academia. Multiple calls to reduce the barrier of entry to science, increasing the readability of literature, and increasing the ease-of-access to scientific data & innovations have been made. Prominently, NASA’s open-access culture to its advancements is a large contributor to these efforts. The publication “NASA Plan for Increasing Access to the Results of Scientific Research” made in 2014, highlights the steps NASA has taken to ensure easy access to its digital data and peer-reviewed literature. This plan not only includes access to data and research but goes as far as to maintain scientific integrity in its research & writing, as well as support efforts training personnel to adhere to the noble efforts that they are undertaking. Alternatively, UNESCO has been pushing the idea of scientific open-access as part of its 17 sustainability goals; uniting the scientific community across the world to share and declare research for the global benefit[5].

Although scientific knowledge has been advancing, the writing style of how scientists communicate their findings largely remained stagnant in its development. As a result, it became more difficult to comprehend and communicate science to others. Although efforts making science more accessible have been around, they focus on accessibility to science physically, but not in a literary sense. If the goal of writing scientific literature is to communicate collective innovations and findings, why shouldn’t the scientific community innovate how it communicates when the current method is ineffective?

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