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Scientists Need Plain Language

Lily Whiteman expresses concisely why scientists need to use plain language when they write for the public.

Despite widespread scientific illiteracy, the public is currently confronting many important science-based choices. For example:

  • About 50 percent of the major bills that come before Congress contain a major scientific or technological component. (Current science-based public policy issues include, for example, stem cell research, global warming, and biohazards.)
  • Juries are evaluating more and more technical evidence, such as DNA-based evidence, medical evidence and fiber evidence.
  • More and more patients are making important medical decisions for themselves instead of deferring to physicians, as they have traditionally done.

For the public to make smart decisions on science-based issues, they must understand them. As Isaac Asimov said, “The whole premise of democracy is that it is safe to leave important questions to the court of public opinion—but is it safe to leave them to the court of public ignorance?” Plain language is one of our best tools for improving scientific literacy and encouraging wise decision-making by the public on science-based issues.

It is important for scientists to use plain language not only to reach the public; but also to reach one another. Indeed, scientific information conveyed in plain language invariable reaches bigger scientific audiences than information conveyed in technical language. Evidence of this includes the following:

  • A recent study showed that medical articles reported in The New England Journal of Medicine and then reported in The New York Times receive about 73 percent more citations in medical reports than do articles not reported in The New York Times.
  • The Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine is a nationally successful journal with the best readership growth trend and advertising growth trend in its market. But The Cleveland Clinic Journal wasn’t always so successful. Until the mid-1990s, it was a forgettable, low circulation journal.

How did the editors of The Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine dramatically increase their readership? By replacing their journal’s dense, long-winded, jargon-filled style with an alternative style that incorporates the principles of plain language. This new-and-more popular style emphasizes the liberal use of white space, eye-catching side-bars, easy-to-understand graphics, succinct article summaries, attention-grabbing article titles, everyday language, conciseness, clarity, and short regular features covering practical topics. The Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine is posted on the Internet at