Too much jargon? When to suspect a scientist might be lying

Eleanor Meecham | November 23, 2015

Writers use unnecessarily complex language for all sorts of reasons. To impress their peers, to sound authoritative, to comply with legislation, to fit in with company culture. And we all know that public officials can be deliberately long-winded and vague to avoid revealing inconvenient truths.

But we’d never suspect scientists of the same thing, would we? Scientists value verifiable facts and empirical evidence. So surely they’d never use language to muddle the truth?

It turns out, some would.

A study by two researchers at Stanford University, of over 500 scientific publications, revealed that:

Fraudulent papers were written with significantly higher levels of linguistic obfuscation, including lower readability and higher rates of jargon…

In other words, scientists who were stretching the truth used gobbledegook to cover up.

Image, Mad science with Lego characters.

‘Are you sure this is going to work?’ ‘Don’t worry. The NGX-34 is calibrated and the XT-equipped PBRT has a 5 terabyte Oxyo45. Everything’s going to be fine.’ Image by Yohanes Sanjaya / CC BY

David Markowitz, the lead author, says:

Scientists faking data know that they are committing a misconduct and do not want to get caught. Therefore, one strategy to evade this may be to obscure parts of the paper … Fraudulent papers had about 60 more jargon-like words per paper … This is a non-trivial amount.

So if you’re reading a scientific publication and can’t understand what the author’s trying to say, now you have a new reason to wonder why.

Read more about the study

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