Mon 17 October 2016

On jargon

Posted by ankur in Research (1311 words, approximately a 6 minute read)

Jargon is more often than not looked at unfavourably. Jargon is just the "language of a trade" and so, by itself, I don't see why I should denounce it. Rather, to me, it is the usage of jargon that is the issue. If you think of a workplace where people are aware of the context and meaning of certain jargon, I see no reason why it isn't appropriate usage. In fact, in such scenarios, jargon makes conversation efficient since the parties must not needlessly simplify their communications. So, when I go over to my lab mate's desk and say "well, the STDP rule doesn't seem to result in an AI state", he knows exactly what I mean. I'd find it quite difficult to rephrase that sentence to make it any simpler. The same applies for most professions if not all of them. Whether it's farming or mechanics; IT or medicine; cooking or sewing; designing or the media; they will all have some specialised terminology. It is just normal evolution of language in the same way that "selfie" is now a word. Jargon is simply a set of words that encapsulate concepts that are frequently used in a context.

So why are we up in arms about jargon, then? Why is everyone continuously talking about how we need to cut it out? Quite simply, because when jargon is used in the wrong scenario, it hampers transfer of information. If work related terminology is used in a social setting where other listeners are not privy to it, for example, the conversation does not serve to pass on any material. Furthermore, it usually has the effect of making the audience feel out of place. It is quite similar to speaking to a single member of a group in a language that the others do not comprehend. It is considered impolite.

To take it a step further, jargon seems to be used frequently with the malintent to obfuscate - especially in sales and marketing. The idea seems to be to coin and use fancy wording to trick consumers into buying products. The billboards and slogans that we see on a daily basis while not untrue, are not always created with aim to elucidate facts.

Another use of jargon is straightforward snobbery. It makes the snob feel like part of an exclusive club. There isn't much to say about this other than that one should simply not engage with such individuals.

Scenarios where the use of jargon is unintentional are more complex to deal with. Most research falls in this category. Consider people like me who spend a majority of their time in an environment that requires the use of an uncommon vocabulary. So, I read research papers that contain specific words, I write papers using these same words, the discussions I partake in utilise these too - this jargon is quite unavoidable to a large extent in work life. I'm only 2 years into my Ph.D. and I find it hard to speak about the same subject matter without employing the same dialect already. While this does not affect my daily activities as they are limited to colleagues who are well versed in our diction, it greatly limits my ability to spread the science I work in to a wider audience. This, in contrast, does effect me, and you too. If we're not working similar areas, we have very little understanding of each other's work.

While I can't speak for types of work, this, in general, is an issue in research and academia - the lack of ability in us researchers to disseminate our work to people in other streams, especially non research careers, is an accepted weakness.

Computational neuroscience, for example, is extremely multidisciplinary. At my lab alone, we have biologists, physicist, mathematicians, and us computer scientists, all working under the same roof on similar research questions. The dialect each of us speak is different. Yet, we read and publish in the same channels. When I read a paper that is heavy on biological detail, I find it much harder because the text utilises biological terminology that I'm not well aware of. In our case, though, there's only the one solution of learning what we need to know. It is how we manage to collaborate across disciplines, and it takes work - the difference in jargon ever so slightly increasing the required exertions.

Extend this scenario to someone who isn't working in computational neuroscience at all. Of course, it'll be even harder for them to understand the same text. Given how important research is for all life in general, it is imperative that people who do not conduct research be made aware of progress that is continuously made. If you don't understand why research is important, let me point out to you that every manufactured product you use in your home is the end result of some research somewhere. Take a moment to wonder how it all came about - it isn't magic; it is years of hard work and failure.

To insure the future of research, it is important that young students are exposed to it at an early age. It is the simplest way of arousing enough interest in them to guarantee that research receives a constant stream of capable bearers to build on past innovations. It really doesn't matter what they take up - contributions to each field count.

It is also helpful for consumers to have some idea of how things are manufactured and the amount of work that goes into it. It helps them pick between brands and decide what price they should pay for a product. A general awareness helps build immunity to the different tricks in use today that gently nudge consumers into buying products - creating demand for a product that wasn't required some time before.

A last but important note is that most research makes use of public funds that are obtained via government grants. If the tax payer is funding some research, the tax payer should know how the money is being utilised.

So, yes, making research information easily accessible to everyone is of great value. This is where jargon stands out as quite a bottle neck. Individuals that are not aware of the context, or those that do not have the required background knowledge cannot be expected to read research papers to understand the state of knowledge. Rather, academics have to work towards simplifying the data to an extent that it can be consumed by individuals from all walks of life. This isn't easy, and simplification usually goes hand in hand with omission of lesser important details but it is certainly possible to synthesise an overall picture of a concept.

What I've written isn't new by any standards. The problem is well known, and communities are working towards making knowledge more understandable. If you watch the stuff the BBC puts up, for example, you'll see a lot of work by individuals like Professor Brian Cox that is aimed at explaining complex physical phenomena in simpler terms. A start has certainly been made.

The point of this post was to give myself some time to think about the issue. After writing about a thousand words on the subject, I have a better understanding of it myself. I also have a better handle on what I should do to do my bit. It simply takes practice and some feedback. That's all it is. So, as I blog frequently about my Fedora related activities, I am going to make more of an attempt to write about my research too. A target is always helpful. Since it takes some effort at the moment, I'm going to set myself a target of one research related post every two to three weeks to begin with. Today being the 16th of October, I'll publish the first one before the 7th of November. Let's see how that goes.