Technion’s De-Jargonizer translates science-speak for the layman

New web tool helps scientists communicate more clearly with those outside their field of expertise

Illustrative image (iStock)
Illustrative image (iStock)

To help bridge the linguistic divide between jargon-spouting scientists and people outside their field, Israeli researchers have developed a web translator that will go through their writing, flag esoteric words and terms, and suggest more common replacements.

With the help of the “De-Jargonizer,” developed by researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and HIT–Holon Institute of Technology, a “myocardial infarction” becomes a “heart attack,” “aspirate” becomes “breathe,” “thoracic cavity” becomes “chest,” and so on.

The De-Jargonizer is based on deep scientific studies that analyzing some 5,000 scientific papers for word usage based on a corpus of over 90 million words published on the BBC’s website in 2012–2015 (American spellings for the same words, like colours/colors, were added to the corpus). Words were classified based on their frequency of usage – rated for high-, mid-, and low-level frequency of usage, with the latter classified as jargon.

Words were also divided into families (words with the same roots), compared for frequency of use (“basis,” for example, was found to be commonly used, but “basely” a low-frequency usage word). Words in the same family – with similar meanings, but different usage frequencies – that were high-frequency were used to replace low-frequency words where possible. When text is uploaded or pasted into the De-Jargonizer, the algorithm color-codes words in the text as either frequent (black text), intermediate-level general vocabulary (orange), or jargon (red).

Results of word frequencies as determined by the De-Jargonizer (Technion)
Results of word frequencies as determined by the De-Jargonizer (Technion)

Once the benchmark was established, the researchers validated it by studying articles, presentations, and speeches to determine the level of jargon used. As expected, the results indicated that scientists’ lectures directed toward the scientific community employed more jargon than lectures aimed at the general public, such as TED talks. The researchers also used lay summaries, written for a wide audience, and their corresponding academic abstracts published in the journals PLoS Computational Biology and PLoS Genetics.

Results showed that lay summaries indeed include less jargon (10%) than academic abstracts (14%) on average. When they have to, scientists can bring their knowledge to the public. The De-Jargonizer aims to help them do that even with difficult scientific papers, making sure they are understood by as many people as possible.

“Scientists intuitively understand they need to use less jargon when speaking with the public than to their peers,” said Technion Professor Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, who led the research with Dr. Tzipora Rakedzon of the Technion and Dr. Elad Segev of HIT. “But using so many unfamiliar words excludes the very people they are trying to engage.”

Others who could benefit from the De-Jargonizer include doctors (patients are likely to feel more comfortable fulfilling doctors’ instructions if they better understand what they are being asked to do), attorneys (clients will have a better understanding of contracts, etc.) and government bureaucrats such as economists (new US laws require that federal agencies employ “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use”).

And it will be a boon for scientists who seek support – financial or otherwise – from the non-scientific public, said the researchers. “The De-Jargonizer provides an up-to-date and user-friendly tool to improve these communications by analyzing one’s text, and allowing communicators to adapt it to lay audience level and fight professional norms and ‘the curse of knowledge’ to make expert-public communication more effective.”

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