New Feature: From the Literature

I thought I should start writing occasional reviews of recently published scientific papers featuring aquatic and other insects, so I am starting a new feature called From the Literature.  We scientists collectively call all scientific papers ever published “the scientific literature,” so “from the literature” refers to papers that have been published in a scientific journal. I’ll try to do one review every couple of weeks, but first let me tell you why I think this is important.

One of the major downsides to science is that we use what is effectively our own language, the language of science.  Our language is full of big words derived from Latin and Greek and is full of jargon.  These words allow us to describe what we’ve done in very precise terms within our personal fields of study, but they are often difficult for someone who is not familiar with the literature to understand.  Furthermore, each different science has the equivalent of it’s own dialect.  The words I use in my entomology papers might be totally different from those written by scientists in other fields.  I frequently have a hard time reading papers pertaining to other sciences, such as physics or chemistry, because I do not understand their jargon.  They use a different “dialect” of science than I do.

I believe that the use of scientific language generally causes problems when you want to communicate your research to other people.  However, I think the language barrier is especially problematic because it creates an enormous disconnect between scientists and the rest of the population.  If it’s hard for me to understand a physics paper, even though I am a scientist myself, how can the author expect non-scientists to understand?  I at least have some of the jargon down, but many people have never come across some of the words used.  Some words are so specialized and used by so few people that it is even hard to look them up!  The use of scientific language in scientific papers means that it can be very difficult for non-scientists to delve into the literature and learn more about what scientists are actually doing.  This is a problem.

Another problem in science relates to the availability of scientific papers.  If you’re a non-scientist and you want to read a scientific paper (you’re willing to break down that language barrier and dive in!), where do you go?  You can’t simply run down to Barnes & Noble and pick up the latest copy of Freshwater Biology.  If you happen to be lucky enough to live in a city with a big research university, you can access scientific papers in the university library.  You can always subscribe to a scientific journal, but many of these cost hundreds or thousands of dollars if you are not a member of the scientific society that publishes it.  Most non-scientists aren’t willing to shell out the cash to pay for a full-priced journal subscription.  Neither are most scientists!  If you want to look at one specific article from one specific journal, you can often download that one article from the publisher’s website, but it will cost you to do so.  Essentially, most science is not open access – not all people are able to access scientific information.  If you are not a scientist yourself, it can be incredibly difficult and/or expensive to find things in the scientific literature, and this is a problem.

Now let’s get back to my original goal in starting this feature.  I think it is awful that most people can’t read science.   It causes all sorts of problems, from general scientific illiteracy to faulty policy making decisions to issues with funding for scientific research.  There is also a lot of really fascinating information available in the world that most people can’t even look up!  I hope to make a tiny dent in this problem by reviewing papers, effectively translating them into plain English, so that non-scientists can learn about some of the fascinating discoveries made by entomologists.  I want to get some of this information out to the general public.  We entomologists do some very interesting things and the world should know about it!

Next time, I’ll review a great new paper that was published a few weeks ago in the prestigious scientific journal Science.  I hope you’ll enjoy my new feature!


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