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Science

Investigating the Complexity of Academic Writing (theatlantic.com) 160

biohack writes: While the general public might expect that researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work, academic writing tends to follow an opaque style permeated with professional jargon and complex syntax. Proposed explanations for the emergence of this style range from experts generally finding it difficult to be simple when writing about their expertise to more complex social and cultural theories: "Cynics charge ... that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example."
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Investigating the Complexity of Academic Writing

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  • by getuid() ( 1305889 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:20PM (#50818375) Homepage

    Publushing in high-ranking journals is often subject to various limits, i.e. 2500 words for an article, or 120 words for the summary etc. Having a conplex but interesting story to tell can then be quite challenging. Intricate language, with peer jargon, is often very compact. It's very rewarding to use it... :-)

    • by alvinrod ( 889928 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:35PM (#50818521)
      Depending on the field, the jargon does allow more concise explanations in a limited space and the intended audience will probably be familiar with it and have no problems with the jargon. As long as the study design and statistical analysis are easy to understand, I don't think it's a problem.

      But there are other disciplines [xkcd.com] where it seems like it's a competition to find the best purple prose and to say as little as possible with as many words as possible or obfuscate one's meaning so much that it's impossible to infer the author's real meaning. There's a reason that something like the postmodernism generator [elsewhere.org] exists.

      Take a look at the Sokal hoax [wikipedia.org] for a good example of this. Some journal (and one that just has authors pay for publications) accepted an article that was utter nonsense by intent.
      • But there are other disciplines where it seems like it's a competition to find the best purple prose

        Math textbooks, for one. I've seen so many texts at a more advanced level where the author's purpose is evidently to dazzle the student reader with his or her "brilliance" even if it makes the text no longer something the student can learn from.

    • How much text would it take to make a submission in a theoretical physics journal understandable to the average person.

      • by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:50PM (#50818671)

        How much text would it take to make a submission in a theoretical physics journal understandable to the average person.

        Can't talk about physics specifically, but in the journals I read it would double the size of the article to just make every point explicit. I.e., there are a lot of things that are written that depend on the reader having a good enough background to understand the implications. To make it understandable to the "average person" would take an entire journal for each article. There have been times when I've had to reread one sentence several times and then look at the equations before I could get the full meaning.

        Reading a scientific article is not like reading a newspaper or story in People. It takes work. Doing it any other way would make the articles too long and boring to the intended audience. Making it transparent to the "average person" would leave the average intended reader going "yes, that's obvious ...".

      • by joe_frisch ( 1366229 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @01:39PM (#50819071)

        For theoretical physics I think it is hopeless. There are just too man concepts that would take too long to introduce. I'm a PhD physicist and I can't read theoretical physics papers - not the jargon, but I'm just not comfortable with the concepts. Just try explaining a HIggs boson to a non-physicist - and that is a decades old concept. Strings are hopeless, but they are just the basics needed for modern physics.

        Other subjects are probably similar.

      • by lgw ( 121541 )

        How much text would it take to make a submission in a theoretical physics journal understandable to the average person.

        As a sibling post pointed out, Einstein's papers were quite readable. The jargon associated with Sting Theory was, as it turns out, a huge red flag that the entire field was a waste of time and careers.

        QM in a bit of an odd duck, as beyond a certain point you can't explain the details in any natural language, it has to be math. That's fine, that's not jargon. QM has a particular problem in that some in the field seem to delight in QM being hard for non-experts to understand, and that attitude shouldn't

    • It's also that fact that everything has to be a hedge. You can't simply say, "My original research results show that stimulus A causes response B with p<0.5, and this is what I did". The first problem with that sentence is that you have to be both original (work not done before) and not original (work based closely on work someone else has already published, or else it's too much of a leap). The second problem with that sentence is that you have to hedge, saying instead "seems to indicate", or "possibly

    • It's not really a word limit such as we are writing for a particular audience, namely other researchers in the field. Arguing that this is exclusionary is just stupid. Indeed if we were to apply this logic then the most exclusionary thing about papers is that they are generally written in English which excludes the entire non-english speaking world from understanding them.

      The point of any written work is to communicate effectively with the reader. To do that you have to target it to your audience startin
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Journal articles are written to get past reviewers in prestigious journals. Blame the publish or perish system.

  • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:26PM (#50818429) Journal

    Well no shit.

    1. Writing well is hard. These are people who have devoted their lives to science not writing. Expecting them to be good at both is common, but silly.

    2. Jargon gets a bad rap, unecessarily so. Yes it makes it harder for outsiders, but with it aids communication because you don't have to have long winded and inaccurate descriptions of commonly used things every time.

    For example, I can talk about corner detection and most people in computer vision would immediately know what I'm talking about wit hme using only two words. Space is imited, and verbosity is also harmful.

    3. Many many scientists do not have English as a first language, yet it is the language of almost all journals of any repute.

    4. Deadlines These things happen.

    5. No one pays them to write better. Your job security is based on the amount of science done. If scientists put more time into writing and less into doing science then they risk falling behind and losing a job in a brutally competitie market.

    So: if you want scientists to write better, you have to allocate money for it.

    • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @01:16PM (#50818899) Homepage Journal

      2. Jargon gets a bad rap, unecessarily so. Yes it makes it harder for outsiders, but with it aids communication because you don't have to have long winded and inaccurate descriptions of commonly used things every time.

      For example, I can talk about corner detection and most people in computer vision would immediately know what I'm talking about wit hme using only two words. Space is imited, and verbosity is also harmful.

      There's a Star Trek episode about Tamarians [wikia.com], a race who speak entirely in jargon. Their language uses cultural references instead of words of meaning: "Darmok on the ocean" means loneliness, isolation, "Sokath, his eyes uncovered/opened" means understanding/realization, and so on.

      As an AI researcher concerned with techniques of learning (and indirectly, teaching) I've come to realize that our science is the Tamarian language.

      The vast majority of ideas in academia is named after a person or event. The German Tank problem [wikipedia.org], Gauss's law, Einstein's famous equation, Planck's constant, Jenson's inequality, the Method of Frobenius, the Archimedes principle, Lou Gehrig's disease... the list is endless.

      There are some intuitive ideas, such as: speed of light, triangle inequality, law of large numbers, no free lunch, principle of least action... but there are very few of these.

      No one takes the time to come up with intuitive or meaningful names for things any more. It's a land-grab for esteem by having something named after the researcher.

      It's really, *really* difficult for a student to learn about a field, because they also need to associate some random name with the concept. We can't just say "convex inequality", it has to be "Jensen's inequality".

      Feynman once quipped that about 30% of physics is learning to do unit conversions.

      I might add that another 40% is learning how to associate random, meaningless names to fundamental principles.

      • by khallow ( 566160 )

        I might add that another 40% is learning how to associate random, meaningless names to fundamental principles.

        Once you learn the history of these names, they are no longer random. And what's easier to remember and say? "Legendre transform" or "an involutive transformation on the real-valued convex functions of one real variable"?

      • There's a Star Trek episode about Tamarians [wikia.com], a race who speak entirely in jargon. Their language uses cultural references instead of words of meaning: "Darmok on the ocean" means loneliness, isolation, "Sokath, his eyes uncovered/opened" means understanding/realization, and so on.

        They didn't communicate with jargon. As your link points out, they communicated with allegory and metaphor.

        Shaka, when the walls fell.

      • by martas ( 1439879 )

        It's a land-grab for esteem by having something named after the researcher.

        The person doing the naming that way is never the researcher who came up with the concept, it's other people who quote the concept and refer it by the original author's name. If the concept is sufficiently useful and gets cited that way a couple of times, the name sticks.

        Fun fact -- experienced researchers know their field sufficiently well that they can refer to papers by naming the authors (disambiguating by context). If you can't even remember a couple of the most important concepts by non-descriptive

    • 1. Writing well is hard. These are people who have devoted their lives to science not writing. Expecting them to be good at both is common, but silly.

      Exactly. A lot of scientists are just really bad at writing. They aren't trying to be unintelligible, but they lack the skill to do better.

      I could say they should have taken more English classes in college, but honestly, have you tried reading any academic writing by literature professors? The jargon and unintelligibility can be just as bad as any science paper.

  • Complex syntax may be an affectation driven by cultural norms, but professional jargon is generally necessary. Jargon compresses large amounts of previously-understood knowledge into a word or a phrase. For example, in a paper I'm writing I just mentioned "counting bloom filter" and IND-CPA. Either of those concepts requires many pages of words to explain, and in turn references many more concepts that the layperson will not know. The full background required to fully understand each of those concepts, star

    • I still strongly suspect that the only people who can really understand his "simple" explanations are those who already understand the bulk of the concepts being explained.

      Good point -- however, he gets it into a form where people:

      • who would like to know more, or
      • who never really wanted to know more, but bring it up as small talk in conversations with people who do know more, and get a much more detailed description than they were expecting or ever wanted
        • can understand his descriptions well enough to use their elements to create well-formed questions.

  • When you write an academic paper or an article for an academic journal, your audience is other academics, with a certain baseline knowledge. So of course you're more inclined to use jargon and complex language.

    When you're writing for a general audience, you're more likely to forgo the jargon and use more simplified language and explanations.

  • I wrote a college term paper on mathematic functions for a German-born English instructor who had a reputation of being a hard ass. I checked out a half-dozen mathematic books from the library to get a better idea on how to describe the process step-by-step. The descriptions were nearly identical. So I wrote mine the same way. The instructor accused me plagiarism because my description wasn't original. I pushed back, pulled out the photocopies that I made from each book, and challenged her to write a better
    • It's only plagiarism if you don't cite your sources.

      • by creimer ( 824291 )
        We argued that point too. None of the half-dozen mathematic books I've looked up cited an earlier reference for the nearly identical description used to describe the same operation. If a push came to a shove, I don't think the college would have sided with my hard ass instructor.
  • While the general public might expect that researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work, academic writing tends to follow an opaque style permeated with professional jargon and complex syntax. Proposed explanations for the emergence of this style range from experts generally finding it difficult to be simple when writing about their expertise to more complex social and cultural theories: "Cynics charge ... that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers.

    This is a joke, right? I plugged this text into http://readability-score.com/ [readability-score.com] and got a rough grade level of 16 for understandability.

    Maybe researchers expect and support magazines such as Popular Science, Psychology Today, Discover, JAMA-Kids, etc. to interpret and rewrite their research to a specific audience, from high-school student through peers in unrelated fields. I bet most writers would tell you that it's not one-size-fits-all. Heck, maybe they wouldn't mind if they get called for an interview t

    • by creimer ( 824291 )
      When I was a lead video game tester, one of my testers reported that the instruction manual for a kids video game was written at the 12th grade readability level. At the same time, management told us to put documentation bugs into the database. So I told my tester to write up the bug report with examples for a sixth-grade readability level (a reasonable assumption for parents with kids who may not be high school graduates). The writers weren't please to have a bug report to rewrite the manual and complained
    • grade level of 16 for understandability

      I guess that's equivalent to the average person beginning graduate school?

  • by thinkwaitfast ( 4150389 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:37PM (#50818537)
    by Chip Morningstar, coiner of the term avatar for an on-screen representations.

    How to deconstruct almost anything [fudco.com]

  • by codeAlDente ( 1643257 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:41PM (#50818581)
    When I saw that Steven Pinker was one of the people complaining about academic language. Did he even read his own article about "the dress"? This should be example #1, but at least it was about science, unlike that Flaubert stuff that was provided as the first example.
    • Like Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker is also one of those guys who basically stopped doing academic work and started writing one popular science book after the other. It's an industry and doesn't have much to do with actual research. They are kept by their universities because they popularize difficult topics and attract students and funding, not because of their great contributions to science.

  • While I agree that academic writing is often too opaque - in particular the use of the passive voice in scientific papers is too slavishly followed - I think academics should be cut some slack here. They are very well aware of the review process and how their papers will be cited. That makes them generally cautious about their claims, not wanting to be accused of making claims that their research does not support, while at the same time not hiding the light of their research under a bushel. That tightrope,
  • Well, yes, all of these to various extents. Plus the need at times to be precise, when the equivalent in general language is vague. Plus when writing for your peers, it is a lot easier to use your shared language.

    Any particular impenetrable paper may result from one of these causes or any combination.

    It is fair to say that if an informed layperson (someone with an ongoing interest in the field, not a specialized degree) cannot get the gist of the argument, then the paper is poorly written and shouldn'

  • by postposthaste ( 763548 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:52PM (#50818691)
    The article raised an important point about scientific writing. However, as an early career academic I can tell you that my writing training so far has not been targeted towards writing for public reading. Why do scientists write? We write to get our results published in scientific journals which is the basis for an academic career, and we write grant applications to funding bodies so that we can get money to do research. Otherwise, I believe the majority of scientists would prefer research over writing. Anyways, in both of the above context, we are taught to target our writing to intelligent peers who may not be in the exact same field of research but can judge the significance of the scientific content and its contribution. There is no incentives at all to a scientist's career to target our writing towards the public. This is not to say that scientists should not improve on our writing style. I'm still learning.
  • "Cynics charge ... that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example."

    Next from Congress: The Fairness in Academic Writing Act (FAWA) which will require academics to only use words with three syllables or less so people in Red States can understand their high-falootin' publications.

    Also known as "No M

    • Is high-falootin' one word or two?

      • Is high-falootin' one word or two?

        It's from the Old English, chagflkningrbbr which means "one who eats smelly cheese". I believe the OED has it as one word, but what do those English pansies know, right?

  • by ClickOnThis ( 137803 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @01:17PM (#50818905) Journal

    Opacity of jargon has various advantages, depending on the field. [xkcd.com]

  • More than any other language English is a hybrid, so it has more words for the same thing. This goes way back. English's roots are Germanic, but even then it was mixed from Anglo, Saxon, Norse, and Frisian. Then you have the influx of Latin, twice: first by Roman conquest in early A.D., then by academic fashion in the Middle Ages. Between those two, in 1066, you have the Norman Conquest. That's why the words for the animals in the field are chicken and cow, which are Old English, the language of common folk

    • Of course in science, most of the terminology didn't exist in the last millennium. It would not be any easier to understand if it used Germanic roots. See Poul Anderson's Uncleftish Beholding for an essay on Atomic Theory written in Germanic English.

  • by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @01:48PM (#50819133) Journal
    And when they're thinking about their work, they think in terms of jargon. Just like how a veteran coder is going to think programatically.
  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @01:52PM (#50819167)
    My personal philosophy is that the point of writing is to convey information. Consequently, I try to write as clearly and simply as possible to make what I'm saying easy to understand. I gave the first draft of my thesis to my advisor and... he told me my writing was too simple. I had to use more complex words and sentences, and excess repetition (his exact words were "say what you're going to say, say it, then say what you just said").

    Along the same lines, my thesis work was dependent on another researcher's work so I had to follow the papers he was putting out. His writing was incredibly dense with very complex sentence structures which sometimes took several minutes to unravel. From his name, I could tell he was Indian so I figured he wasn't fluent in English or something. I finally got to meet him and... his English was perfect and when he spoke about his work it was incredibly easy to follow. I asked him why his writing was so inscrutable. He said he wrote like that because it was expected of him when publishing, and because it made him sound more intelligent.

    No thank you. One of the best papers I came across during my research was Claude Shannon's A Mathematical Theory of Communication [worrydream.com]. It is easy to read and understand, yet concise and detailed. It's so easy to follow I've given copies of it to co-workers who were attempting to solve problems related to or similar to information theory, but who weren't trained in information theory. And they've all been able to digest it in one or two nights of bedtime reading. That is how knowledge should be passed.
    • Your advisor was mis-applying the philosophy behind "say what you're going to say, say it, then say what you just said." It's valid in certain contexts, primarily when you are writing to educate, which is different than conveying information. In education, you have to repeat yourself because your audience might have trouble keeping up, or their attention might drift. A big challenge with educational writing and speaking is the reality that at least part of your audience doesn't care or want to be reading/he

  • Try the test yourself:

    http://snarxiv.org/vs-arxiv/ [snarxiv.org]

  • by thegreatemu ( 1457577 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @02:13PM (#50819337)

    Sometimes three is just an inherent smarty-pants style to writing academic papers. I lose track of how many times I instinctively try to write something like "utilize" or "make use of" when a simple "use" will work.

    But, at least in scientific writing, you use complicated language in order to be absolutely precise about your method and findings (as opposed in particular to scientific journalism...). As an example, I work in the field of direct experimental searches for evidence of interactions between particle dark matter and nuclei. That's a huge mouthful, but every single word in that phrase carries distinct meaning, and if you take any of them out, it is not a correct description of what I do, and may refer to another field entirely.

    Now take that kind of precision and discuss an experimental result. "We find that, at 90% confidence level, there is no statistically significant evidence for X". Again, it sounds like buzzwords and jargon, but there is simply no way to turn that statement into "common" English.

    • I'm not a scientist, and I don't think anything you wrote above sounds like buzzwords and jargon. The implications may not be immediately clear to me, but the facts you've communicated certainly are.

  • My favorite discussion of this topic is The Science of Scientific Writing [americanscientist.org]. The authors' basic argument is that most people think science is hard to read because the ideas are complex; but instead, scientists can convey their ideas clearly by meeting the structural expectations of the reader.

    For example, readers expect the subject of the sentence to be the subject of the story you're telling. They expect old information to come before new information. They expect the end of the sentence to be the "stres

  • The closest analogy I can think of is legalese that you will find in official documents such as contracts or court documents.

    The reason it has a 'flavor' is to differentiate them from common language. This is extremely important because common language varies widely, from Appalachia, West Coast, Deep South, East Coast, UK English and so on. Having super-set (legalese) helps to differentiate and disambiguate from common language.

    This applies in the same way to formal science journal articles.

  • People want simple answers yet they don't understand that complex issues or problems often require complex answers as that is the only way to give a true answer.
  • of this type. "When studying foo, objects with property A must fall into class B {reference]."

    You then say to yourself "Gee I have a hard time believing that." You then go read the referenced paper, and low and behold. It describes one or more of: foo theory, property A or class B. What it does not do is prove the claim in the sentence.

  • by Rainbow Nerds ( 4224689 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @06:23PM (#50821099)

    I don't think jargon in scientific writing is always a bad thing. It's important to be precise. When I conduct an experiment, I need to be precise about my procedure. If I'm precise, readers can identify caveats in my methods that would affect the outcome of my work. It also means someone else can duplicate my experiment. It's important for scientific experiments to be repeatable. It's also important to be precise about conclusions. I work in meteorology, a field that's next of kin to climatology. A lot of research about global warming is misunderstood or exaggerated when the general public hears about it. If I write a paper about global warming, I need to be precise in my conclusions so I don't contribute to this problem. If jargon helps me be precise, it's a good thing. If jargon exaggerates the importance of my work or obfuscates its meaning, it's a problem.

    I think scientific writing is difficult to understand because so much is written in the passive voice. It was once acceptable to use first person pronouns, so writing has more active voice. First person pronouns fell out of favor in scientific writing about a century ago. Writers should be free to use first person pronouns if they make the writing easier to understand.

    I also don't like how so many papers try to exaggerate their importance in the introduction. The first paragraph describes a very important problem while the rest of the paper only addresses a tiny part of that problem. It's done to persuade editors that a paper is of interest to more of their journal's audience. But it also contributes to misunderstanding.

  • by ILongForDarkness ( 1134931 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @07:04PM (#50821329)

    But a couple papers I wrote for journals my supervisor specifically helped me make it more terse. He made it sound as that was a big factor in successfully getting papers published (at least in the field in question, condensed matter physics). I took it to mean that being longer winded/more explanatory was considered a waste of everyone's time and potentially hiding any original findings/justification for the thing to get published in the first place.

    I think (to a more limited extent) science could learn from preaching a bit. Foundational reasoning for how you got to where you are going shouldn't be left as as an excercise for the reader. "Because we need to minimize the line integral over the Lagrangian" er "Jesus saves".

  • I had to do a paper in 2014 in Electronics Engineering. I had adapted good lines in the draft:[Brackets show my edits]
    Professor Sir Frank Holmes: [Electronic specifications] "are like a bikini; what they reveal is important, what they conceal is vital".
    Otto Van Bismark: [Prototypes] "are like sausages; it's better not to see them being made."
    Hal Abelson: "If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders." (this is a reversal of Issac Newton's line, and was my case
  • by sabbede ( 2678435 ) on Thursday October 29, 2015 @07:40AM (#50824069)
    Scientific/Academic papers are not written for the general public, they are written for other people in the field. People who are familiar with both the terminology and the style. For example, If I were to write a critique of Marx's interpretation of Hegel, I'd probably call it, "A critique of the Marxist interpretation of the Hegelian Historical Dialectic." Simply knowing what the hell the title means would require more than a little familiarity with the field. That familiarity would also provide a warning that the following text will be incredibly dense and complex both conceptually and syntactically. But, you would have a pretty good idea of where I was going with it.

    To write the same paper for a general audience would require I write an entire textbook first.

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