Should Environmental Communication Scholars Use Plain Language?

Over at Water Words That Work, Erik Eckl and his readers have been having a little fun at the expense of us academics. To wit, apparently some of the titles of papers presented at the recent Conference on Communication and Environment are viewed as less-than-clear. Say it ain’t so!

Granted, it sure is easy to make fun of academics (academic satire of academics’ attire anyone?). We even make fun of each other sometimes. But let’s take this issue somewhat seriously for a moment.

On one paw, there is no doubt that academic theory often uses technical terminology that is opaque to outsiders not versed in the theory. Many fields of study and enterprise are this way. A discipline’s terminology allows it to advance its work in ways that might not be possible without the terminology. In that sense, the specific lexicon of a field forms part of that field’s toolbox. And to be fair, academic conference papers and journal articles are mostly aimed at fellow academics, not the general public. The Conference on Communication and Environment is not a skills-building workshop for environmental communication practitioners. In that sense, a somewhat more esoteric style of communication is probably acceptable to the audience.

On another paw, in a field such as environmental communication (a crisis discipline) that aims to help address critical issues involving the public, there may be a need for more accessible forms of communication if the field is to be relevant to real world issues. What is the point of having all these smart people puzzling out the problems of the world, if those who might benefit from the research can’t understand it? Furthermore, of all the disciplines (and inter-disciplines), doesn’t communication have a greater obligation to be clearer in its own communications?

When I was working as an Associate Editor for Alternatives Journal, we struggled with these issues all the time. That publication tries (quite successfully I think) to bridge the gaps between environmental scholars and activists/practitioners/concerned citizens. It often means compromises though.

Anyway, you know the debate. It’s nothing new and neither are the arguments I have briefly presented from two sides. So let’s just duke it out. I give you, then, Indications’ first ever reader poll:

Thanks and please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts on this question. Note: I will open up the results once there are at least 25 votes.

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About Mark S. Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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8 Responses to Should Environmental Communication Scholars Use Plain Language?

  1. Mark W says:

    I guess it all depends on the applicability of your research results, and your ultimate vision for them. I left an applied, social science research field after becoming frustrated that findings were rarely, if ever, applied. (“Applied” had come to be defined more as “dealing with current topics,” rather than solving problems or influencing change.)

    Now I’m on the practitioner side of the equation and frequently comb research journals for new ideas. Its hard work to keep up. In regards to the “plain language” debate, again, it depends on your goals. If a wide spectrum of groups and practitioners are to gain insights from important findings, someone needs to translate them. Whether that’s the researcher, a journalist, an activist, I’m open. Whoever is the best communicator 🙂

  2. Rachel says:

    I also voted no.

    It is critical for experts to use jargon to understand each other at times, it helps a community of experts constructively interact with each other, understand the specific circumstances to which research results apply versus the limits of their interpretation, and in the process, better warrant academic knowledge by being precise with their assumptions.

    The question of plain English or not is a useful rhetorical question for getting us thinking about when and why we deviate from “plain English.” If it doesn’t serve to clarify a precise concept that the fuzzier, less precise layman’s terms don’t provide enough clarity on, then it is probably obscuring the real meaning of what is being said.

    On the other hand, we construct our ideas and logics with words and sometimes academic jargon is critical for creating a conceptual shortcut for communicating a specific idea that has a historical line of logic and a large body of academic research behind it.

    Take a recent seminar that I gave to an interdisciplinary audience where I was talking about two major discourses that existed in a policy debate I was studying. Most of the audience followed it quite well, except a political scientist in the audience who commented, “What you are describing isn’t a discourse.” After a brief and confused exchange about what each of us meant by “discourse”, an anthropologist in the audience helped us by pointing out “It is a discourse, just not a Foucauldian discourse.” That immediately cleared up for both myself and the political scientist where the miscommunication had occurred and why we were operating with different interpretations of the term ‘discourse’.

    The rest of the audience had no idea where the confusion had arisen or how it had been resolved, because I had prepared a “plain English” version of the talk.

    But by being reminded that there were different meanings of the term “discourse,” I was able to provide better clarification on my research assumptions and methods by clarifying which corpus of work I was drawing on to support my claims and interpret my observations. That was the most useful feedback I got in the seminar.

  3. Eric Eckl says:

    We did enjoy picking on the environmental communications academics over at Water Words! But there’s nothing personal about it, we usually pick on ourselves, and by “ourselves” I mean environmental engineers, scientists, and lawyers, who all-too-often are pressed into service as communicators and are looking for help… fast.

    I think the reason my post stirred up so much commentary among my own readers — now enhanced by comments from those who read this blog — is that they are highly educated and have a lot of respect for academia — but couldn’t fathom how the research that was shared at the COCE conference (I did cherry pick the most obscure sounding discussions) would help them carry out their responsibilities.

    If helping these front line communicators is one of your goals, then it’s a point you should take to heart. If not, then don’t mind us.

  4. Steve S says:

    I’ve commented at the WWTW site (link above). As Mark says, the “clear language” debate is old but persistent so it doesn’t hurt to hone positions and clarify the best stock arguments.

    For those of you engaged with COCE, I do think this debate bears directly on the future-of and organizational identity discussions…not that we should simplify paper titles, but that we need to keep thinking about who the COCE forum is for, relative to other forums for sharing research and engaging practitioners.

  5. One of the first things you learn in communications is to target the audience. All disciplines have their own lingo. However, if a research scientist is doing technology transfer, the papers are written in plain language in order to communicate the ideas across a broader spectrum of people. Similarly, I view Environmental Communication as technology transfer. If you are interested in communicating climate crisis to the people who are creating it, you must speak in plain language to get THEM to listen and learn.

  6. Rosalind Rowe says:

    Isn’t “communication” supposed to be about the audience being addressed?

    When in Rome… and all that.

  7. C. Christen says:

    I voted no. This should not be interpreted as indicating that I favor or oppose the use of plain language. Rather, I dislike it when other scholars or professionals try to impose their personal preferences on the rest of us.

    Presumably we’re all well educated and reasonably accomplished, and hence capable of deciding for ourselves the appropriate style of language to use in our papers, presentations and other communications.

    What’s next? Mandatory use of qualitative research methods?

  8. S. Perrault says:

    I voted “Yes,” meaning “Yes, to the extent possible without losing crucial distinctions.”

    Maybe part of the problem is that our field, unlike (say) molecular biology, uses words that people recognize without necessarily realizing that those words are being used as terms of art?

    Some samples from molecular bio (specifically from Cell):

    WNT/TCF Signaling through LEF1 and HOXB9 Mediates Lung Adenocarcinoma Metastasis

    Mammalian BTBD12/SLX4 Assembles A Holliday Junction Resolvase and Is Required for DNA Repair

    A Unifying Model for the Selective Regulation of Inducible Transcription by CpG Islands and Nucleosome Remodeling

    These communicate absolutely nothing to me, though I might have fun misreading them… A Holliday Junction, for example, clearly draws on the work of linguist Adrian Holliday (not to be confused with Michael Halliday) to describe the role of Resolvase (a cleaning product, found next to the Pine-Sol in most groceries) in helping mammals everywhere bring together their unraveling strands of DNA. Right?

    Interestingly, one of the folks who commented on the WWTW post apparently has a JD… And law, as we all know, is famous for its clear, pithy communication (e.g. http://www.harvardlawreview.org/issues/122/jan09/kahan_hoffman_braman.shtml… can anyone tell me what “Cognitive Illiberalism” is?)

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