Sunday, July 17, 2011

Academic writing ain't my thing

Can someone please explain why so many scholars and scientists feel compelled to obscure, confuse and bore their audiences?

These are brilliant people with brilliant ideas and yet they can't tell a story to save their lives. Just open any academic journal and you'll see what I mean. The language is impenetrable to outsiders. The sentences are clunky, heavy, and awkwardly constructed. Each article contains a wealth of information – some of it interesting and important – but the writing is so bad as to render the whole thing unreadable.

It pisses me off for three reasons: one, because I have to read this shit as part of my master's degree; two, because of the inherent disrespect to the general reader embedded in this kind of writing; and three, because it doesn't have to be this way.

I think part of the reason academics write the way they do is because they write for other academics. They're after the approval of their peers, not the public. As a result, there's a certain snobbery and elitism in academic writing. Academic writing must have weight and gravity, and the easiest way to add weight and gravity is to fill a paper with technical terms and sentences that are so scientifically precise that they obscure, rather than illuminate, what it is the author is trying to say.

Accuracy is the aim but obfuscation is the result.

Let me give you an example from one of my least-enjoyable reading assignments of the past year. The article, published in Functional Ecology in 2005, was titled "Neutral theory in community ecology and the hypothesis of functional equivalence." Here is a brief excerpt:

"The theory for community assembly based on the competitive niche paradigm became highly developed, first with multispecies community matrix theory (Levins, 1968), which was developed on the foundation of the Lotka-Volterra equations, and then with more mechanistic theory, which explicitly incorporated the dynamics of resource supply and consumption along with the dynamics of the resource-dependent consumer species (Tilman 1982, 1987)."

It goes on and on like this for seven pages. I had to read it three times before I started to understand it. And then I had to read it a few more times before I was able to translate the author's abominable sentences into something more digestible. Line by painful line.

You could argue that someone without a background in ecology is not the intended audience for this paper. It was written for specialists in the field who could quickly and easily grasp its context and significance. So there is no need to simplify it for a general audience. It's all well and good to contribute to the general body of knowledge in a particular field. But why are so many scholars and scientists content to just please their small circles of peers?

If you as an environmental scientist have no desire to communicate your findings to the public or to policy makers then what the hell is the point? Why spend years of your life on research that ends up collecting dust in an obscure journal in a remote part of some distant library?

It goes back to the snobbery and elitism unnecessarily embedded in academic writing. The problem is that plain English and simple storytelling is disparaged as not scientific. I have one professor who constantly dismisses non-academic writing as mere journalism.

And while I agree that journalistic research doesn't carry the same weight and rigor as academic research, I disagree that a more journalistic style of writing is somehow less serious than an academic style of writing. If academics want their research to resonate with the public or policy makers, they could benefit from a more narrative style of writing.

I'm not saying you have to spoon-feed the reader but at least open it up a bit. Tell us why your research is important. Put some effort into making the significance of your research clear and compelling. Strip down the sentences a bit. Why use five words when one will suffice? Push the academic journals to change their stuffy conventions.

There are many scientists who are excellent communicators. People like E.O. Wilson, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan come to mind. They understand the importance of explaining their work to the public and they do it well.

Scientific research is important but it is meaningless if there is no attempt to communicate that knowledge in a way the public and the people in power can understand. Information locked away inside impenetrable jargon and technical terms is not helping anyone.

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