Bare-bones scientific talk: Playing with linguistic constraints

During a class today I was involved in an interesting discussion about the effective presentation of scientific findings. In particular, we chatted about the use (and abuse) of jargon and overuse of lofty or colorful language in research, and how overuse can undermine the message of your research.

On the one hand, students who are getting started in psychological research find themselves having to explain research ideas or findings in terms that they might not fully grasp (usually due to following rote advice on how to analyze their data without getting guidance on the propriety of that analysis & what it actually accomplishes). On the other hand, more experienced academicians can end up obfuscating their scholarly aims and procedures by constructing their arguments under the assumption of complete consumer comprehension and tailoring their language toward extensively seasoned minds (you see what I did there?). In other words, people who have lots of experience can sometimes explain things in very confusing ways because they assume every listener knows exactly as much as they do.

In any case along that continuum, it can be quite helpful to gain practice in simplifying your scientific arguments. One of my classmates highlighted a fun online tool that can be useful for doing just this – The Up-Goer Five text editor. The name is a reference to an XKCD comic (As an occasional XKCD reader, I’m surprised I hadn’t come across this already). This tool will analyze English text and flag any words you use that aren’t among the most commonly used 1,000 (or “ten-hundred,” as ironically the word “thousand” isn’t on that the list).

I thought I’d take a swing at simplifying an explanation of my own research using this tool. Granted this is probably a gross oversimplification process, but it can be a helpful way to practice giving the “elevator pitch” version of your research. I figured, if I can explain my work under these fairly absurd constraints, I’m off to a good start in learning to summarize my work in fairly vanilla terms.

So — Challenge accepted.

I decided to try it out with an abstract from a poster that I recently presented at the SPSP Conference in Austin, TX (see poster D137)1. Here’s the original abstract:

The neighborhoods in which couples live are key determinants of the quality of their relationships. This is especially true among vulnerable populations, whose members are exposed frequently to adverse neighborhood conditions that pose additional burden for the romantic relationships people strive to maintain (Karney & Bradbury, 2005; Cutrona et al, 2003). Using data from 177 African American couples over a 6-year period, we show that, above and beyond the effects of experiencing personal stress due to racial discrimination and chronic financial strain, living in a neighborhood characterized by prevalent social disorder (e.g., gang activity, dilapidation, and public substance use) can erode the quality of a relationship over time, both via direct influence and by indirectly undermining the quality of perceived support availability within the relationship. Our results suggest that adverse neighborhood characteristics may compromise a crucial social resource on which couples rely when coping with life in such environments.

According to the Up-Goer Five text editor, there are tons of uncommon words peppered throughout this abstract (unsurprising). I got flagged for the following:

Uh oh! You have used non-permitted words (neighborhoods, 
determinants, quality, among, vulnerable, populations, whose, 
members, exposed, frequently, adverse, neighborhood, conditions, 
pose, additional, burden, romantic, strive, maintain, karney, 
bradbury, cutrona, et, al, data, african, american, period, 
beyond, effects, experiencing, personal, stress, due, racial, 
discrimination, chronic, financial, strain, neighborhood, 
characterized, prevalent, social, disorder, e, g, gang, 
activity, dilapidation, public, substance, erode, quality, via, 
direct, influence, indirectly, undermining, quality, perceived, 
support, availability, results, adverse, neighborhood, 
characteristics, compromise, crucial, social, resource, rely, 
coping, environments)

Yikes. Looks like it’s going to be a challenge trying to get my message across while sticking to common English words only. Here’s my attempt at simplifying things within those constraints:

Married people live in places that sometimes make it harder to be married. Living in such a place might be even harder for married people who are in groups that often have a really hard time in the world. For six years, we asked almost two hundred married people about 1) times when other people in the area in which they live were mean to them because of who they are, and about 2) times when they didn’t have enough money to get by. We also asked whether the areas in which married people lived 3) had lots of other people who caused trouble, and 4) whether others in the area got along. We wanted to see if those four things would change how good married people would be at helping out and being there for each other six years later. It turns out that one did – Our work showed that if married people simply lived in an area where lots of others cause trouble, over the next six years they had a harder time being there for each other.

Is this better for scientific publication? Well, probably not. But… it is a fun exercise in “dumbing down” the language typically used in communicating even a summarized version of scholarly work. It’s possible that a more naive audience would find this revised abstract a little more approachable and understandable. For me, approachability is a crucial aspect of presenting work to an audience, and sometimes it can be difficult to find a balance between making your work easy to understand and beating your audience over the head with evidence of your scholarly expertise. Practice makes perfect though. Feel free to give it a shot.


1 Clavel, F. D., Cutrona, C. E., & Russell, D. W. (2014). The role of neighborhood risk factors and personal stressors in romantic partner support and relationship quality among African American couples over time. Poster presented at the 15th Annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. February. Austin, TX.


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