The Science Jargon Buster!

This post is the last in a three part series about accessing and reading scientific papers. The first two posts talk you through how to find and interpret papers for your own use. I might be biased but I would definitely recommend reading them if you haven’t already!

Sometimes scientific papers can feel like they’re written in another language. Bookmark this jargon buster to refer to when you’re ready to dig into some dog science.

A lot of the words in this post will sound familiar, but take on entirely different meanings when used by academics. I thought it would be useful to focus on terms that mean something different to scientists, and therefore can’t be completely understood by ‘Googling’ the definition.

Aims What the study was designed to find out – the ‘what’ of the research (for comparison see objectives)
Anecdotal Knowledge that is acquired through word of mouth, rather than via empirical study
Between-subjects A study design that compares two or more groups of subjects (for comparison see between-subjects)
Bias The effect of an untested variable on a result, which causes the result to be different from it’s ‘true’ value
Blind (In relation to the experimenter or participant) unaware of critical information about the experiment, to protect against bias
Canis lupus Wolf
Canis lupus familiaris Domestic dog
Case report A paper in which a single subject is described
Case-control A type of study in which half of the participants are the focus of the study (cases) and are compared to participants that are not (controls). See also matched case-control
Cohort study A study design in which a group of subjects or participants are followed over a period of time. See also longitudinal study
Confidence interval A range of results within which the ‘true’ value is likely to be found
Conflict of interest Something that may bias a researcher, and therefore a study. Conflicts of interest are usually declared towards the end of a paper
Confounding A variable that affects both the independent variable and the dependent variable
Control A subject or test that serves as a ‘normal’ comparison for the subject or test of interest.
Correlation Two variables that have a relationship. For example, body weight and height in humans are positively correlated variables – as height increases, so too does body weight.
Corresponding author The author who can be contacted in case of questions relating to the study described.
Cross sectional study Subjects are observed or tested at a single point in time (for comparison see longitudinal study)
Data Information that is collected through research
Dependent variable The variable that is of interest and is measured in the study. See also independent variable
Double-blind Neither the participant nor the experimenter is aware of some critical information about the experiment, to protect against bias
Empirical Evidence or knowledge resulting from scientific study
Et al. Literally ‘and others’. Used to indicate multiple authorship when referring to other papers.
Ethical approval Endorsement from a board of other researchers, indicating that the research design minimises risk of harm (e.g. to subjects) and maximises benefit
False negative A non-significant result where a significant result should have been found
False positive A significant result where a non-significant result should have been found
Field Area or topic of research
Generalizability The extent to which findings or results are true outside of test conditions
Genotype The genetic make up of a living organism (see also phenotype)
Guardian/owner The person with part or full responsibility for an animal’s care
Hypothesis The idea that is to be tested in a study
Inclusion criteria Features of the subject to be studied that must be true in order for the subject to be included in the study
Independent variable A variable that does not change in response to other variables, but that may influence the dependent variable
Interaction Used to describe two or more variables that produce an effect together, but not separately.
Literature Collective term for scientific papers that focus on a particular topic.
Longitudinal study A study that collects data about subjects repeatedly or continuously over a period of time.
Matched case-control Also known as ‘matched pair’. Used to describe a case-control study that matches subjects of interest with similar controls for comparison purposes
Materials The equipment used in the study
Mean Mathematical average
Median The middle value
Meta-analysis A study that collects and analyses the results of multiple other studies
Methodology The rationale for the choice of methods
Methods The processes used to conduct the research
Model A mathematical system that inputs the values of some variables and calculates a result
Null hypothesis A hypothesis that predicts that any association or difference found will be purely a result of chance
Objectives What will be accomplished to satisfy the aims. The objectives are the ‘how’ of the research
Odds ratio How many more times an outcome is likely to occur, given that a certain variable is true
Participants Human subjects
Peer-review The process in which papers are approved for publication, subject to approval from other researchers that have the field of interest
Phenotype The observable characteristics of a living organism (see also genotype)
Plot Graph
Prospective A study design that observes the emergence of outcomes (for comparison see retrospective)
Qualitative The analysis of data in the form of words
Quantitative The analysis of numerical data
References Recognition of the other sources that were used in the design, conduct and description of the study
Related See within-subjects
Reliable The result remains the same when the test or observation is repeated
Retrospective A study design that involves collecting data on outcomes that have already occurred (for comparison see prospective)
Rigour The extent to which methods are designed and conducted systematically, to reduce the likelihood of bias
Sample The group of subjects involved in a study
Sensitivity The degree to which a measurement will correctly identify any true or significant results
Signalment An animal’s sex, breed and neuter status
Significant An association between variables or difference caused by a variable that is not likely to be due to chance (see also p value)
Specificity The degree to which a measurement will correctly identify any false or non-significant results
Subjects The animals that are tested or observed in the study
Systematic review A paper that draws conclusions from a critical appraisal of the literature
Theory A tested, unifying explanation for a set of phenomena
Type I error A false positive
Type II error A false negative
Valid A result that is likely to reflect the ‘true’ value
Variable A feature of a subject or test that can vary between subjects or tests, e.g. sex or temperature
Within-subjects A study design in which the same group of subjects is tested multiple times, and the results of the tests are compared. For example, subjects may be tested before and after playing a game.
< Less than
> More than
Less than or equal to
More than or equal to

If you can think of any terms that should be included in this list, let me know using the comment section below. I’d also be really interested to hear from anyone who has decided to start reading scientific papers using the information in this series – let me know what you’ve been reading!



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