With millions of academic papers being published each year—close to an estimated three million in 2020 alone—scholars often struggle to make their work stand out. While no one has been able to nail down how often the average journal article is actually read and cited, many academics have a sense that their research is not having the reach or impact it could. The publish-or-perish culture in academe and the use of citation metrics like the H-index only amp up the pressure to publish papers that attract attention.
Better writing skills can go a long way in making your work stand out. While the research in a paper certainly matters, how it is presented also plays an essential role. There’s a pervasive belief in higher ed that it’s OK for academic writing to be jargon-filled and complex—that what makes for good academic writing is different from what makes for good writing in general. However, a study that my colleagues and I recently conducted reveals that writing style can substantially influence a paper’s success (at least in the social sciences).
We compiled a selection of peer-reviewed academic journal articles from 1990 to 2018 from five social science disciplines: psychology, economics, political science, anthropology and sociology. We then consulted with online rankings and experts to identify the top journals in each discipline. Finally, we acquired full-text article data, as well as meta-information (title, issue, authors and so on) from as many of these journals as possible, removing nonresearch articles.
That left us with a data set of 28,774 articles. We pulled citation counts for each article from Google Scholar and controlled for factors known to affect citation rates such as the prestige of the journal and the article’s age and length. My colleagues and I used manual coding and machine learning to separate each article into three segments: 1) the introduction, 2) the methods and results, and 3) the discussion or conclusion. That allowed us to look at whether the impact of language and style varies across different parts of a paper.
Our natural language processing algorithms zoomed in on function words—also known as style words—that have a purely grammatical purpose. They include personal pronouns, such as “I” and “you,” and auxiliary verbs, such as “can” and “must.” Function words make up a tiny portion of English vocabulary (fewer than 0.05 percent of words), yet they bind nouns, verbs and adjectives together to create meaningful content. We focused on those words because they capture the style of a piece of writing rather than its content.
Using AI to analyze how such function words are deployed, we find that the most cited articles show more frequent use of a handful of language features, including simple grammar, present tense and personal voice. The importance of those features depends on the section of the article in which they’re used.
Here are three lessons from our research about how you can improve your academic writing style.
- Keep it simple. Simplicity is key to a paper being read and cited. Writing briefly and clearly—rather than getting bogged down in jargon or complex run-on sentences—makes articles more readable and their findings easier to understand. We find that papers with less grammatical complexity, especially in the introduction, tend to have more citations.
- Use the present tense. It helps to create a sense of immediacy around the research, making it feel timelier and more relevant. Although many style guides on academic writing suggest describing your research in the past tense, we find that papers with present-tense language are cited more often. Look for ways to use the present tense in your articles—for example, “the treatment plan increases survival rates” rather than “the treatment plan increased survival rates.”
- Employ first-person voice (“I” and “we”) strategically. This is another stylistic choice that is often discouraged in academic writing but that we found to be quite effective. Writing from your personal perspective engages readers and conveys a sense of your knowledge and authority on a topic.
That doesn’t mean, however, that academic writing should totally depart from formality. Our research shows that there’s a time and place to use this narrative format. Papers whose front ends are written with more first-person pronouns are cited more often, while papers that use impersonal pronouns in the middle empirical section—for instance, the methods and results—are cited more frequently. Use legitimizing, impersonal language when discussing the details of the research to demonstrate objectivity.
There’s obviously much more to learn about the impact of language and writing style on how often academic papers are read and cited. Yet the three characteristics we looked at in our research demonstrate that neglect of the written word can have far-reaching consequences, even in fields that aren’t typically associated with elegant prose. Important research may stay buried because the way it’s written is inaccessible, unengaging or unrelatable.
Textual analysis can shed light on how different forms of writing can help—or hinder—the transfer of ideas. As AI becomes more capable of quantifying the features of human language, we look forward to an even broader range of insights into how the words we choose can make our research shine.