Scientific jargon – best served with a side of infographics
Title: Using infographics to reduce the negative effects of jargon on intentions to vaccinate against COVID-19
Author(s) and Year: Elizabeth E. Riggs, Hillary C. Shulman, and Rachel Lopez (2022)
Journal: Public Understanding of Science (open access)
TL;DR: The study investigated whether the use of infographics can mitigate against the negative impacts of scientific jargon use within a message about COVID vaccines. The use of an infographic was found to increase processing fluency, message credibility and intention to vaccinate, and decrease message resistance, compared to a text-only message, but only when jargon was present. When there was no jargon present, the beneficial impacts of the infographic were not realised.
Why I chose this paper: I have long believed in the power of a well-designed infographic in portraying complex scientific information to public audiences, and I was keen to explore some of the empirical evidence surrounding the use of infographics for science communication purposes.
The use of jargon – scientific, technical, or specialised words, many of which may be unrecognizable to a general audience – can impair understanding of a scientific message. A general convention amongst science communicators is thus to avoid using jargon – however there are times where this can prove challenging, or perhaps even unavoidable.
The unprecedented public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, the context within which this study is set – is one such example where jargon use may be necessary, due to the birth of novel terminology and the need for accuracy in reporting.
This study sought to determine whether the use of infographics – visual representations of information that include both image and text – can counteract the negative effects of jargon use, in such instances where it may need to be used.
More specifically, the study investigated whether and how the use of jargon and infographics within a scientific message affects an individual’s receptiveness to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
An important focus of the study is an individual’s processing fluency – that is, the feelings of ease (high fluency) or difficulty (low fluency) experienced when processing new information – and how this impacts resistance to a scientific message, and views of its credibility.
A total of 643 adult participants were surveyed using an online platform. Each participant was shown a ‘primary message’, which for this study was “a COVID-19 vaccine explainer that described the mechanics of how the mRNA vaccines worked”. This topic was chosen due to the current-day relevance of the message, whilst this topic is also conducive to using jargon terminology.
Two conditions were tested; message format (infographic or text-only), and jargon use (jargon included or no-jargon), resulting in four different ways in which the participants could receive the primary message:
Infographic, without jargon
Infographic, with jargon
Text-only, without jargon
Text-only, with jargon
The study participants were randomly assigned as to which version of the primary message they received.
The jargon terms were taken from a news article that was published in The Washington Post in April 2021, and these terms were replaced with simpler synonyms in the no-jargon version.
For the text-only version, information was displayed in paragraph form. For the infographic version, sentences were separated out and placed next to visual elements which complemented the written material. The infographic was taken from the same Washington Post article as the jargon terminology.
After being shown their version of the primary message, participants responded to a series of questions. The researchers applied a computational modelling tool to these responses and assessed the effect that message format (infographic or text-only) and jargon use had on four different factors;
Intention to vaccinate.
The following relationships were identified from the analysis:
For the text-only version, there was a significant negative relationship between jargon and processing fluency. However, this was not observed for the infographic version.
The use of jargon was associated with a higher message resistance for the text-only version, but this was not observed for the infographic version. A higher processing fluency was also associated with a lower message resistance.
For the text-only version, the relationship between jargon and message credibility was significant and negative, but no significant relationship was found for the infographic version. A higher processing fluency was also associated with higher message credibility.
Intention to Vaccinate
The presence of jargon was associated with a lower intention to vaccinate for the text-only version, but this effect was not seen for those who viewed the infographic version. Higher processing fluency was also associated with higher intention to vaccinate.
This research provides guidance to science and public health communicators in designing effective public messaging, especially when under challenging circumstances such as the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The findings from this study support previous research which recommends science communicators should reduce the use of jargon where possible, given the unfavourable associations it had with processing fluency, message resistance and message credibility.
More importantly however, this research demonstrates that infographics are highly effective at mitigating against the negative impacts of jargon use, and are thus a useful strategy on occasions where using complex scientific terminology is necessary.
One perhaps unexpected finding was that the use of jargon reduced credibility. Using technical terminology could reasonably be expected to increase credibility by indicating expertise in a topic, however the research suggests that the difficult processing experience instigated by jargon overrides this effect, leading to decreased perceptions of credibility. For public communicators, this means they should find other ways to demonstrate source expertise, without using jargon.
Where this study extends beyond previous research is by investigating not just message perceptions, but also behavioural intentions – in this case, getting a vaccine. The fact that jargon use led to a reduced intention to vaccinate strengthens the argument for considering the role of processing fluency when designing a public facing message – and it is shown that infographics are a way to improve an individual’s information processing experience, and thus lead to higher adoption of a desired behaviour.
Interestingly, the positive effects of infographics were only realised when there was jargon present – there was no significant impact observed for the no-jargon versions – suggesting that infographics are not always better than text, but rather they can help to explain complexity where it exists.
The Final Word
This study provides important empirical evidence to highlight the value of infographics, however further research is needed to cover a broader range of scientific topics, and to look at different infographic styles.
The take home message for science communicators? Reducing use of heavily technical scientific language remains advisable, however, designing an impactful infographic will help to deliver your message if you have no other choice.
Edited by Tony Van Witsen
Cover image credit: Firmbee from Pixabay