The Joy of Journal Articles

Journal articles can be a real challenge to read. I was fortunate through my undergraduate program to read relatively simple plant ecology articles that involved basic statistics and little jargon—whatever jargon there was, the meaning was easy to infer and so did not require a graduate-level understanding.

However, not all sciences appeal to logic and an elementary understanding of Latin. While I could attend a biological science colloquium and understand the research within my first year of college, as a graduate I still cannot understand the posters lining the walls in the physics building. I suppose a year of 2000-level physics courses truly only gets me so far.

My education focused on biology, so perhaps it is not fair to blame physics. Let’s blame neuroscience.

Recently I attempted to read an article published in The Journal of Neuroscience. For grins I annotated the abstract with blue ink for concepts I needed Google for, underlined with black ink the terms that I knew or could infer because of my biology background and circled words that could have simpler synonyms. Essentially, here is a visual of what the non-sciency person will not understand.

Just…click to enjoy the read. Maybe tell me how much of it you understand.

Here is why neuroscience can get so complicated—besides the fact that brains are complicated. A synapse is the exchange of information from one end of a neuron to another end of another neuron. But there are words to describe the direction of the information. We can have dendrodendritic synapses, which is when the information does not pass the normal root-to-branch to the next neuron’s root-to-branch (we call that axodendritic synapses) but travels from one neuron’s branch to another neuron’s branch. Neurons can travel backward, called antidromic stimulation, and forward, called orthodromic stimulation. We cannot say a synapsis went backward. I mean, why describe biological phenomena when we can make up a new word?

Let’s not blame neuroscience. There are as many branches of science that prefer coining new words for every variation of an object or process as there are underlined words in the abstract I showed above. Let’s be relieved that most people do not need to read journal articles to learn of the advancements in science but instead can read “popular” articles written by people who do read the journals.

In which case, that may make science writers, whether journalists or public information officers, translators.


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