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Vol. LXIII, No. 12
June 10, 2011

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Avoiding the Jargon Trap
Plain Language Keynoter Urges the Courage to Be Imprecise

Veteran science journalist Maggie Fox
Veteran science journalist Maggie Fox

En route to the 2011 NIH Plain Language and Clear Communication award ceremony, a mysterious “thorium-based fuel cycle” stopped veteran science journalist Maggie Fox in her tracks.

“My mind completely closed,” she said in her keynote address, recalling the moment when this jargon dropped into the interview playing over her car radio.

This was an example of “a missed opportunity” for communication, said Fox, managing editor for technology and health care at the National Journal Group. She asked her audience of NIH science communicators to avoid the on-air physicist’s mistake in word choice. She emphasized that they should weigh the accuracy of their words against the clarity of their meaning.

“Be brave enough to drop the precision,” urged Fox; non-experts don’t need to understand all the nuances of a scientific journal article. She lamented that unnecessary terms that few actually understand—like “antiretroviral drugs”—are now in everyday use because journalists faithfully passed on the jargon they’ve heard. (Simply “AIDS drugs” would have been enough, she insisted.)

The 11th annual award ceremony—held on May 17 and presided over by NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, with a cameo appearance via video by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins—honored 195 articles, web sites, exhibits and other products that met Fox’s challenge.

With a record-breaking 427 entries, this year’s competition, sponsored by the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, OD, demonstrated NIH’s continued movement towards plain language in communication. During her address, Fox praised the several hundred awardees for illustrating how much the research community has learned in recent years about the value of communicating well.

Its institutional commitment to clarity made NIH science a joy to cover, said Fox, whose experience in health and science journalism began with Reuters and has continued with the National Journal. In addition to the science beat, she has also reported on location from major international incidents such as the Tiananmen Square protests.

“People at NIH have taken the time to explain things to me,” she recalled. Staff would help her choose the best analogy to explain a certain technical idea, she said, because they understood that engaging language would get the information across the best.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed into law last October, promoting the use of clear communication practices throughout the federal government. For more information on plain language at NIH, visit—Susan Johnson.NIHRecord Icon

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