The truth about why it's hard to put medical writing in plain language

A few months ago, we published an article about the challenges of putting medical documents and patient communication material into plain language - that is, simple, clear, jargon-free language that laypersons can understand. One thing you may have wondered is, why is it so difficult to implement the usage of plain language in these areas in the first place? The same question could be asked about medical research, which ideally should be easily understood by academics and the general public alike. Why are all of these things often written in such an unclear way, especially when there’s so much to gain from clear communication. Benefits of using plain, easy-to-understand language in medical research and communications include: ● ensuring instructions to medical study participants are clear and easy to follow

● facilitating communication and information exchanges with people for whom English is a foreign language

● providing information that medical professionals can quickly understand in cases where time is limited or there’s an emergency

● the ability to share research with the public that promotes healthy practices, such as prevention and vaccination. (This source points out that the public’s desire for information about Covid-19 and Covid-19 vaccines makes this especially important today.) Clearly, there are a number of advantages to writing medical material in plain language. And it should be easier for researchers and medical professionals to use plain language, rather than spend time creating long, elaborate statements that use complicated vocabulary, right? But when you dive into the origins of the medical world’s problem with plain language, you discover that, surprisingly, for many academics and researchers, it’s actually harder to write papers in plain language rather than elaborate, flowery, jargon-filled academic language. The root of the issue probably comes from our school days. In Anglophone culture, we’re taught that using “big words” and complex phrasing makes us sound smarter or more professional. In school, we turn in papers and reports that must be written in a formal way, peppered with stiff phrases and sometimes obscure vocabulary words. This mentality becomes a habit for many academics. Another issue facing academics, as Victoria Clayton reports in this fascinating article from The Atlantic, is the fact that they’re not thinking of writing for laypersons, but for their academic peers, who will ultimately determine if they get tenure. These peers expect academic language, and use it in their own work. Add to this the fact that some words and turns of phrases that wouldn’t be understood by laypersons are actually terms common to a particular field, which might take a while to explain in plain language. And here’s another part of academic language’s appeal (at least to some): using fancy words and complex turns of phrase can hide things - like the fact that you might not have that much to actually say about your subject, or that you don’t know it as well as people might think you do. Academic writing has become so dense and complicated that some sources consider it almost like a language unto itself. For instance, Clayton writes, website The Conversation, which compiles and publishes interesting research and academic findings, has staff “translate” this content into more comprehensible language for laypersons. This brings up another reason that academics and researchers may find it hard to write in plain language. There’s a sense that using simpler vocabulary and phrasing will “dumb down” their work. But speaking plainly doesn’t affect the ideas and information they’re sharing - it simply makes them easier to comprehend. This latter should be the goal of any kind of writing whose goal is to inform or help. According to a recent study, plain language isn’t just appealing to laypersons. Professionals seem to prefer it, too. Still, many academics and researchers struggle to eschew the trappings of academic language. As we reported in our previous article, even a significant percentage of the US government’s websites haven’t completely adopted plain language, despite the Plain Writing Act, which went into effect all the way back in 2010.

And so, that’s why that medical research that you’re interested in learning about is difficult to slog through, despite your motivation. It’s why medical instructions and forms are often more difficult and daunting than they need to be. The benefits of plain language in medical research and academics are clear. But can we clear away the cluttered thinking that’s made academic language more dominant?

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