Gaurav Gulsin, Sachin Gupta, Mostafa El Dafrawi: Read it and weep

In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on keeping up to date with the current scientific literature. To practise evidence based medicine, we have to constantly read and appraise medical journals, and implement (or disregard) their teachings into our everyday work. This means that students and clinicians alike are required to read more and more published research. There is, however, a bit of a problem with this: scientific journals are becoming more and more difficult to read and understand.

How many of the papers you read in the last month did you genuinely understand? The answer to this question should, of course, be “all of them.” Unfortunately, few publications are comprehensible across all ranges of experience in medicine – from student to professor. To us, this reflects a fundamental flaw in current trends of scientific writing. To create a more universal awareness of the happenings at the forefront of research, journal articles must be made more “accessible to the masses.”

This is especially true in the fields concerning basic science research, where confusion is almost guaranteed when browsing through articles to research a specific area. For example, a PubMed search for articles related to Bone Morphogenetic Protein (BMP) in spine surgery yields articles with titles that would confuse almost any professional. Words such as “polyelectrolyte,” “osteoinductive,” “nanospheres,” and “poly(ε-caprolactone fumarate),” are commonplace. These make it more likely for the reader to ignore the research than to explore it.

Why is it that journal articles are becoming increasingly convoluted? In our opinion, the problem stems from the requirement of authors to build upon and cite the ideas of others. To avoid plagiarism, we have to write sentences and paragraphs that convey similar messages, but using different words. How many times can we possibly use the thesaurus function of our word processor before a sentence no longer makes sense? Authors keep quoting each other and in the process the language changes from simple to strange. The simplest way of expressing an idea is usually the best, but this “simple” form was probably written years ago, resulting in modern literature evolving to become increasingly complex. Perhaps journals need to exercise more flexibility with their plagiarism regulations?

Another possible reason may be that the scientific community wants to maintain a reputation of intelligence. Authors think their work is more likely to be published if they use complex wording. In actual fact, this complexity discourages readers from learning about the new ideas in published research. Consequently, research that should be accessible to everyone instead repels us from reading it.

The goal of research is to distribute information that will appeal to a wide audience in order to improve scientific knowledge. If this information is confusing, it undermines the entire idea of writing articles in the first place. We should encourage future authors to put aside the need for vast numbers of citations and instead be more original in their ideas and in their writing. This will hopefully make scientific literature more interesting and more readable.

Gaurav S Gulsin is a final year medical student, University of Aberdeen School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Sachin Gupta is a first year undergraduate student, George Washington University, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Mostafa El Dafrawi is a Post-doctoral fellow, Department of Orthopaedics, Spine Division, Johns Hopkins Medical Institution.