Subject Matter Experts Need Language Experts

As an editor, when I saw the headline “Research Papers Are Becoming Less Readable,” I thought, “I knew it!” and had to click the link. It led to a posting by the U.K. Royal Society of Chemistry that cited a study of abstracts of more than half a million papers published in scientific journals over 130 years. It found that “as science gets more complex, so do the words used to describe it.” Papers today use more jargon and longer sentences.

Some scientists see no problem with this trend, saying that it’s simpler for researchers to share information if they’re using the same, precise language. Others worry that complex language makes it more difficult for experts from different fields to communicate with each other and share research, limiting the effectiveness and reach of the science.

A coauthor of the study proposes using a readability index to evaluate how clear the texts are, but warns that it’s “possible to game readability metrics to artificially inflate scores.”

May I propose an alternative? Hire an editor. We’re a lot harder to “game.”

I’ve spoken with scientists who are totally opposed to having editors touch their highly complex content. They have worked very hard to obtain advanced degrees and carry out specialized experiments — how could anyone with a different skill set than theirs possibly help them?

The first thing I say in reply is that we don’t want to change their words. We want to make sure their words are understood. This doesn’t mean rewriting all their sentences — or even any of them, sometimes. It means READING all the sentences, all the words, and alerting the author to places where a reader might get lost or confused.

The TalentMEDIA team at Vector edits specialized content all the time.

We always ask the client if they are trying to reach a similarly specialized audience or a general reader, and we edit accordingly. We track our changes to grammar and spelling, so the author can accept or reject them. We point out when terms are capitalized or hyphenated inconsistently, so the author can eliminate these “hiccups” that could divert a reader’s attention. We suggest rewrites when sentences get convoluted, and highlight passages that just don’t make sense to us. We don’t do this to scold authors; we do this to show them where they might lose a reader.

To be blunt, some authors want to lose readers. They may want to discourage a casual audience and appeal only to other specialists. By making our grammar and spelling edits, we can help them eliminate distractions in their technical communication.

For scientists who do want to reach more people, it’s invaluable to work with an editor. We can give them the chance to clarify their findings so they won’t be misunderstood, and to hone their words to have the exact intended meaning. They have worked very hard to make important discoveries — editors can help them share their knowledge with the world.


Written by Sheila Gagen, former director of editorial services. For more information about how TalentMEDIA’s editorial team can help you, contact Mary Bruzzese, president and editorial director, at