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It’s been 25 years since physicist Alan Sokal punked academe by getting a purposely nonsensical paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. And it’s been almost as long since the journal Philosophy and Literature ceased its Bad Writing Contest to dishonor each year’s “most stylistically lamentable passages.”
Yet academic writing still skews pretty bad, according to a new study in the Journal of Marketing. The study does more than show impenetrable writing won’t die, though. Through several experiments, the study’s authors attempt to bust these “myths” about scholarly prose: that academic articles are not intended for a broad audience, that unclear writing impresses readers and that scholars already know what makes their writing impenetrable -- and how to avoid it.
“Our biggest goal with this paper was to convince scholars that unclear writing is a problem, even if we’re only writing for a niche audience of other scholars,” said co-author Matt Farmer, a Ph.D. candidate in marketing at the University of Arizona.
“Academics are just like anyone else,” Farmer continued. “The more effort we make them go through to understand what we’re saying, the more likely they are to give up in frustration and look for a paper that is clearer.”
Co-author Nooshin Warren, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, said, “You know, in talking to people about this, they would either say, ‘Yes, know we need to write clearly, and we do write clearly,’ or the other way around: ‘No, if I’m writing for academics, I need to sound smart.’ So empirically being able to prove, with evidence, that this problem exists will bring attention to it.”
The paper ultimately urges scholars to overcome what’s been called the “curse of knowledge,” or the trap one falls into in assuming others know as much as one does. The study also offers academics a tutorial and a new bot-driven Clarity Calculator to help improve one’s writing.
Collecting the Evidence
In their first experiment, Warren, Farmer and several other colleagues asked hundreds of marketing professors from different institutions to read and evaluate an excerpt from one of nine marketing articles. All the texts had been analyzed and rated as having a high, average or low amount of abstract, technical and passive writing: to determine an article’s concreteness or abstractness, for instance, Warren and her co-authors used a pre-existing rating system of more than 40,000 English words and expressions.
Study participants summarized what they’d read and rated the clarity of the prose. They also answered questions about their goals and beliefs regarding scholarly writing.
Ultimately, participants who read clearly written pieces had more positive impressions of both the articles and their authors than did the professors who read less clear, jargony articles. Participants understood 82 percent of the high-clarity articles, for instance, compared to 69 percent of the low-clarity texts. Participants’ ratings of author competence did not depend on whether the article was in the participant’s immediate research area, meaning clarity transcended subfields, as did lack of clarity.
Warren, Farmer and their co-authors wrote that these findings were preliminary evidence for another hypothesis: that academic articles with unclear writing make a smaller impact.
To test that idea, Warren and her colleagues analyzed 1,640 business articles published from 2000 to 2010, noting how abstract, technical and passive the writing was. Then they looked at how many times each article had been cited on Google Scholar and Web of Science. Controlling for a several factors, including presentation and whether the article had won an award based on its relevance, the authors were unsurprised that articles with concrete language, examples, active voice and common words were cited more than those without. An article that scored one standard deviation lower, or clearer, on the study’s measures of abstract, technical and passive writing, for instance, got 157 more Google Scholar citations than a comparable article with less clear writing.
Last, the authors wanted to see if academics write unclearly because the so-called curse of knowledge prevents them from really seeing how they write. To test this, they asked marketing Ph.D. students to write two summaries: one about their own research -- something they knew intimately -- and one about a colleague’s research project, about which they knew less. The students were told to write both “so that other marketing scholars will understand,” in the third-person voice without naming themselves or their colleagues. The students also answered some general questions about themselves, their research and what they thought about the clarity of their own writing.
Using machines and human readers, Warren, Farmer and their team compared the students’ research summaries with their answers to questions about their writing. As it turns out, students were more likely to “overestimate the clarity of their writing when they were more familiar with the research project that they summarized.”
Getting back to the myth-busting, Warren and her colleagues wrote that “some scholars believe that inaccessible writing is not a problem because they think that articles should only speak to a narrow audience of scholars.” But the data from the first experiment, in which professors answered questions about their beliefs about writing, indicate that most marketing scholars actually want their research to reach a broad audience. Some 96 percent of the professors who participated in the first experiment said that they try to write so that most scholars can understand their ideas. Sixty-six percent said their research targets scholars in different academic areas, and 72 percent said their research targets practitioners.
Questions of Audience
Journal editors similarly “aim to publish research that reaches a broad audience,” the study says. “Their editorials have encouraged marketing scholars to publish boundary-breaking research that influences both other scholarly disciplines and marketing practice.” And the new data “show that ideas are more likely to break out of their subdisciplinary niche if scholars describe them clearly.”
Warren said her own research straddles finance and marketing and that she’s noticed parallel research questions being pursued in each field. Those connections get missed, however, when research stays siloed, because it’s hard for someone outside the field to understand what the research is saying.
“We’re not reading each other because for each one of us, the language of the other is not easy to read,” Warren said. Then there’s the additional problem of research not being accessible to practitioners and the general public, she added.
Farmer said academics appear to be making two assumptions about writing: that there is a “trade-off between clarity and simplicity” and that “clear writing is more helpful for nonacademic audiences.”
Instead, he said, it’s helpful to “think of papers like movies in a foreign language that only the authors speak fluently. Subtitles make the movie easier to understand but don’t change the underlying plot. Clear writing, when done well, serves the same purpose. It makes the paper easier to understand but doesn’t change the underlying theory.”
Extending the movie analogy, Farmer said, “Both scholars and nonscholars benefit from clear writing when reading an academic paper, just as both movie critics and casual fans benefit from subtitles when watching a foreign language film.”
Room for Improvement
Warren said Ph.D. students should explicitly be taught how to write clearly, as they’re going to “become teachers of those undergrads and M.B.A.s who are going to become practitioners, and they’re going to become the academics who are going to write.”
Farmer also said that graduate programs are best positioned to “break this chain” of murky prose by teaching students, perhaps in a mandatory seminar, how to identify and minimize abstract, technical and passive writing.
Warren said that while her study involved marketing academics only, the findings are likely applicable across disciplines. Indeed, critiques of scholarly jargon are nothing new or unique to business programs.
Literature, in particular, is no stranger to the jargon wars. Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, said that the critiques of jargon make him “sleepy,” and they’re often a “red herring.”
One can find “clunky, inelegant, passive voice-driven obfuscations and circumlocutions anywhere, even in the nonacademic world.” Over there, he joked, “I hear they are leveraging dynamic synergies among key stakeholders that will enable nimble pivoting to meet a changing consumer landscape.”
Bérubé said he doesn’t really “see anything wrong with groups of academics, in any field, from cosmology to comparative literature, writing for other groups of academics. That’s one of the reasons we have a system of scholarly communication -- to enable specialists to talk to each other at high levels of detail or abstraction.”
That said, he added, “I can’t write in an exclusively hyperspecialist mode and have no desire to do so.”
Bérubé said that in his own interactions with graduate students, it’s been a long time since anyone’s turned in a paper "full of buzzwords." Consequently, his feedback on their papers consists of "bread-and-butter stuff like, 'You should also check out X’s book on this,' or, 'You need to establish this argument before you move on to your discussion of debility and disability.' You know, mechanics."
Since most graduate students "will be thinking about submitting things to scholarly journals rather than to magazines, I just try to make sure that they’re literate in the field," he added. "How they express that literacy in scholarly prose is their business."
Deborah Bosley, owner and principal in the Plain Language Group and professor emeritus of English and technical communication at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that every profession has its own language. And within academe, she said, each field has its own sort of language.
Generally, this makes sense: "Greeks speak Greek to Greeks but English to tourists," Bosley said, adding, "I’m not sure they want to be accessible, but there’s no quote-unquote reward for doing so." In other words, with few exceptions, “the university doesn’t reward faculty who write for the public.”
Bosley said she works in academe as well as the financial, health and technology fields. Echoing Bérubé, she said that the problems across sectors “are all the same. Higher ed is just behind the curve to clarify their research, whereas the other sectors have a money incentive to be clear.”
That’s not to say that academics shouldn’t be writing for the public, however, she said.
“I believe that in public universities, which are funded with taxpayer dollars, the public should be informed in lay language about research and results that are relevant to the public,” she explained. Of course, she said, “their first audience always will be people in their field. Thinks of doctors, lawyers, et cetera. First they learn their own language. Then, if they’re good, they’ll learn to explain medicine and law in plain language to their clients.”