Making science accessible: Israeli software dumbs down tech talk

Software developed at Israel's Technion is slated to make scientific research accessible to the wider public in ways it never was before.

Technion University (photo credit: Courtesy)
Technion University
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Software developed at Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Holon Institute of Technology (HIT) will help scientists make their research accessible to the general public by reducing the use of abstruse professional terminology. The world of science is wide and fascinating, and many scientists understand the importance of making it accessible.
However, many potential consumers of scientific knowledge give up on it because of an unnecessary encounter with jargon.
One of the reasons for the widespread use of professional jargon is the “curse of knowledge” – the expert’s difficulty in remembering what he did not know as a novice. The difficulty is in understanding that the person opposite him does not know, for example, what methylation of RNA is, or a solvent or turbulent flow – terms that he uses dozens of times a day as an expert.
According to Prof. Eilat Baram-Tsabari of the faculty of science and technology education at the Technion, “Scientists understand intuitively that they should reduce the use of professional jargon when speaking to the general public, but many of them do not implement it adequately in texts intended for the general public.”
According to Baram-Tsabari, “The De-Jargonizer application reveals a rather gloomy picture of the patterns of use of scientific jargon in writing to the general public.”
The application’s terminology lists for the general public include, on average, less professional jargon than scientific abstracts, but only by a small margin – 10% compared to 14%. The significance of the data is that when scientists wrote to the general public, one in 10 words was unfamiliar jargon. Previous studies have shown that in order for the text to be understood, the reader must recognize at least 98% of the words. Therefore, the researchers recommend reducing the proportion of professional terminology in the text to 2% – much less than today – in order to promote effective and fruitful dialogue between researchers and the general public.
Baram-Tsabari’s statement is not based on gut feeling, but rather on a study she conducted with Dr.
Zipora Rikzon of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Dr. Elad Segev and his students Noam Chapnik and Roi Yosef of HIT.
In the study, published in the journal PLoS One, the researchers present De-Jargonizer, a new program designed to help scientists and those involved in making science accessible to the public by creating more accessible and understandable texts. The software enables users to simplify their text by identifying, removing, substituting or explaining professional terms that are not familiar to the general public.
The use of the software is very simple. One enters the free site, uploads the text to be tested, and the algorithm automatically and immediately paints the words in the text according to their frequency in the vocabulary of a regular reader.
Today the software is based on the frequency of words on the BBC News website, but the database will be expanded and updated to include additional sources and languages later on.
“De-Jargonizer is a tool that can help researchers and scientists make their research available to the public, support scientific literacy and strengthen the vital dialogue with the general public by using appropriate vocabulary,” concluded Baram-Tsabari.
“It may also have other uses, such as helping doctors who want to make the patient’s medical diagnosis clear.”
Using the new tool, researchers compared 5,000 pairs of texts written by scientists – abstracts of an article and a summary intended for the general public, describing the article in a popular way. All texts were taken from PLoS Computational Biology and PLoS Genetics.
FISH TO SHRINK AND GASP FROM WARMER WATERS If ocean temperatures continue to rise, fish are expected to shrink in size by 20% to 30%, according to a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia.
“Fish, as cold-blooded animals, cannot regulate their own body temperatures. When their waters get warmer, their metabolism accelerates and they need more oxygen to sustain their body functions,” said Prof. William Cheung, co-author of the study, at the Institute for the Ocean and Fisheries.
“There is a point where the gills cannot supply enough oxygen for a larger body, so the fish just stops growing larger.”
Daniel Pauly, the study’s lead author, explained that as fish grow into adulthood, their demand for oxygen increases because their body mass becomes larger.
However, the surface area of the gills – where oxygen is obtained – does not grow at the same pace as the rest of the body. He called this set of principles that explains why fish are expected to shrink “gill-oxygen limitation theory.”
For example, as a fish like cod increases its weight by 100%, its gills grow by only 80% or less. When understood in the context of climate change, this biological rule reinforces the prediction that fish will shrink and will be even smaller than thought in previous studies.
Warmer waters increase the fish’s need for oxygen, but climate change will result in less oxygen in the oceans. This means that gills have less oxygen to supply to a body that already grows faster than them. The researchers say this forces fish to slow their growth to be able to fulfill their needs with the little oxygen available to them. Some species may be more affected by this combination of factors. Tuna, which are fast-moving and require more energy and oxygen, may shrink even more when temperatures increase.
Fish becoming smaller will have an impact on fishery production as well as the interaction between organisms in the ecosystems.