You hear mostly about the evils of jargon in science. Undeniably jargon is a huge barrier between scientific ideas and discoveries and non-scientists. Translating a complex, nuanced result into a sound bite or recommendation suitable for consumption by policymakers or the public can be the most difficult aspect of a project (something Alan Alda, as part of his Center for Communicating Science, is attempting to assist scientists with). But sometimes the implication in general seems to be that scientific jargon is always undesirable. Is jargon really always a bad thing?
Even between scientists, you hear criticism about the amount of jargon in talks and papers. I have heard several times that community ecology is a frequent offender when it comes to over-reliance on jargon (defn: “words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand”). It is fun to come up with a list of jargon frequently seen in community ecology, because examples are endless: microcosm, mesocosm, niche, extinction debt, stochastic, trophic cascades, paradigm shift, priority effects, alternate stable states, or any phrase ending in ‘dynamics’ (i.e. eco-evolutionary, neutral, deterministic). Special annoyance from me at the usage of multidisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, and inter-disciplinary to all express the exact same thing. I don’t think, despite this list, that jargon is necessarily problematic.
If the meaning implied by the word or phrase is more than the sum of its parts it is probably jargon. Ideally, jargon is a shared, accurate shorthand for communicating with colleagues. A paper published without any jargon at all would be much longer and not necessarily clearer. Instead of saying, “we used protist microcosms”, it would have to say, “we used a community of protist species meant to encapsulate in miniature the characteristic features of a larger community”. (And arguably ecology is still relatively understandable for a newcomer, compared to disciplines like cell and systems biology, where an abstract might seem impenetrable: “Here, we report that, during mouse somatic cell reprogramming, pluripotency can be induced with lineage specifiers that are pluripotency rivals to suppress ESC identity, most of which are not enriched in ESCs.”)
Jargon is useful as a unifying tool: if everyone is using the same nicely defined label for a phenomenon, it is easier to generalize, contrast and compare across research. Jargon is many pieces of information captured in a single phrase: for example, using the term 'ecophylogenetics' may imply not only the application of phylogenetic methods and evolutionary biology to community ecology, but also the accompanying subtext about methodology, criticism, and research history. At its best, jargon can actually stimulate and unify research activities – you could argue that introducing a new term (‘neutral dynamics’) for an old idea stimulated research into the effects of stochasticity and dispersal limitation on community structure.
That’s the best case scenario for jargon. There are also consequences to developing a meaning-laden dialect unique to a subdiscipline. It is very difficult to enter a subdiscipline or move between subdisciplines if you don’t speak the language. New students often find papers difficult to penetrate because of the heavy reliance on jargon-y descriptions: obtaining new knowledge requires you already have a foundation of knowledge. Moving between subdisciplines is hard too – a word in one area may have completely different meaning in another. In a paper on conservation and reserve selection, complementarity might refer to the selection of regions with dissimilar species or habitats. In a biodiversity and ecosystem functioning paper, a not-very distant discipline, complementarity might refer to functional or niche differences among co-occurring species. Giving a talk to anyone but the most specialist audience is hampered by concerns about how much jargon is acceptable or understandable.
Jargon also leads to confusion. When using jargon, you can rely on understood meaning to delimit the boundaries of your meaning, but you may never specify anything beyond those boundaries. Everyone has heard a 30-second spiel so entirely made of jargon that you never develop a clear idea of what the person does. The other issue is that jargon can quickly become inaccurate, so laden with various meanings as to be not useful. The phrase ‘priority effect’, for example, has had so many particular mechanisms associated with it that it can be uninformative on its own. And I think most ecologists are well aware that jargon can be inaccurate, but it’s a difficult trap to get out of. The word “community”, essential to studying community ecology, is so broadly and inconsistently defined as to be meaningless. Multiple people have pointed this out (1, 2, 3) and even suggested solutions or precise definitions, but without lasting impact. One of the questions in my PhD defense was “how did I define an ecological community and why?”, because there is still no universal answer. How do we rescue words from becoming meaningless?
Something interesting, that you rarely see expressed about jargon is that linguists tells us that language is knowledge: how we understand something is not independent of the language we use to describe it. The particular language we think in shapes and limits what we think about: perhaps if you have many ways of finely delineating a concept you will think about it as a complex and subtle idea (the 100-words-for-snow idea). On the other hand, what if you have to rely on vague catch-alls to describe an idea? For example, a phrase like ‘temporal heterogeneity’ incorporates many types of differences that occur through time: is that why most researchers continue to think about differences through time in a vague, imprecise manner? Hard to say. It is hard to imagine where community ecology would be without jargon, and even harder to figure out how to fix all the issues jargon creates.