the verbosity epidemic

a very relevant piece in a time when the only NIH funding seems to be in completely ‘translational research’ that goes from ‘bed to the bedside’; case in point. well written.

The Verbosity Epidemic
Many public health initiatives cite the need for transparency in research. Clarity and honesty are integral to the value of study results, funding sources, and institutional, political, and individual involvement. However, transparency becomes more challenging as the language of international health becomes increasingly convoluted.The terminology used in the field of public health has developed into a code that is nearly incomprehensible. Commonplace vocabulary includes “capacity-strengthening,” “harmonization and alignment,” developing the “fiscal space” for countries “under stress” or with “special needs,” using “cluster strategies,” and “partnerships” between “NGOs, FBOs, CBOs.” But what do these terms actually mean?

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria’s Guidelines for Proposals (Round 7) is riddled with confusing language that puzzles even proficient English speakers and encourages misinterpretation. The response to frequently asked question number 76 (What is meant by “technical and management assistance”?) is “This phrase is intended to capture relevant forward-looking activities and costs identified as being appropriate to support and manage efficient, effective, equitable, and transparent implementation arrangements” (1). The language problem of this application process is so serious that the independent nongovernmental organization Aidspan has emerged with the goal of demystifying the application process (2).

Unfortunately, this new language is contagious. Applicants who use these terms are often successful. Large amounts of money have become available for research that involves important, expensive, but often ill-defined areas such as “minimizing the knowledge gap” (3). As a result, complexity and imprecision usually prevail. After all, who among us is going to risk losing millions of dollars in potential funding for programs or research by using plain English?

Rebecca F. Grais*
8 rue Saint Sabin
75011 Paris, France

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

References and Notes
1. The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Round 7 Call for Proposals Documentation (
2. D. Garmaise, The Aidspan Guide to Round 7 Applications to the Global Fund (Aidspan, New York, 2007);
3. J. H. Remme et al., Trends Parasitol. 18, 421 (2002).

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