Utilize-itis and my plight for plain language

Plain language – NOT the language of academics, unfortunately.

During my scientific research career, I got far too used to reading manuscripts and documents that were chock-a-block full of difficult phrases and jargon — I started believing that it was the only way to be published in the world of science. I think that’s what happens to most scientists after a year or two in their field; in order to sound like you really “know your stuff”, there is a common belief that your writing has to be as difficult to understand as possible.

Jump forward to my current life. After three years as a science writer and editor, I’ve realized that this phenomenon is, in fact, due to a disease that exists only in academia…

Utilize-itis — It’s generally passed on from professor to student, sometime during the writing of the student’s first publication. The word “used” gets changed to “utilize”, “without” gets changed to “in the absence of”, “often” becomes “in many cases”. Furthermore, the paper of course gets heavily laden with sentential adverbs — because every single thought that you have as a scientist is “remarkable”, “unique”, or even “astounding”, right?

Wrong. The paradox is that the more original and intelligent an academic tries to sound, the less scientific they often appear. The fact is, that robust results don’t need to be hidden within complicated sentences.

Thankfully, I’ve learned from my past and cured myself of this awful disease. When I edit scientific manuscripts, I now make a point of altering any obscure sentences, using plain language to make sense of science. My rule of thumb is, “if it has to be read twice, it needs to be re-written”. And it’s my dream that one day — one day soon — Utilize-itis will be cured.

Or at least stop spreading to young, eager, professors-to-be.

But for now, my plight continues…

I know there’s only so much I can do. Herd immunity against Utilize-itis would be my preference, but realistically that takes a long time to achieve. There’s only so many manuscripts per year that I can inject with plain language. Leopards don’t change their spots, and scientists won’t suddenly stop writing in jargon. Poor writing is ingrained in our minds from the beginning of our research careers.

But, hey, at least I am a part of the fight…


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