Specifically this notion that "[an academic writer's] intended audience is always their peers," is treated as though it's somehow incriminating. But it's not, it's what most academic writing is for! Many academics do write for the public—and that's great, and more should do so—but they don't publish that in journals or with an academic press and when they do write for the public, their writing is usually pitched at a more accessible level. But most of the writing academics do is aimed at their peers because that is how ideas are transmitted among specialists and how a body of knowledge is gradually expanded. The notion that that they only do this just to "impress" or get tenure seems to be a really bad-faith argument.
Look, any highly technical endeavor is going to have highly technical jargon that’s pretty impenetrable from the outside. There's nothing wrong with that: it allows specialists to communicate about complex topics efficiently. Whether the field is medicine, philosophy, or computer science is immaterial. Frankly, if you want to see a place where obscurantism, needless jargon, and just plain bad writing are used as tools to disguise the fundamental banality of the ideas being presented, look no further than a lot of business writing. I'd take academic writing over management-speak any day.
The style of business writing is equally cumbersome, but this frequently seems to be a disguise for the fact that no actual information. Maybe some papers in academia are trying to overstate their conclusions' complexity?
"The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn’t a new one—and it isn’t limited to government agencies, of course. The problem of needlessly complex writing—sometimes referred to as an 'opaque writing style'—has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition."
That's pretty much the thesis of the article. Anyway, I've certainly encountered academic writing with "tortuous syntax and sentences mostly devoid of meaning," although it's a small minority of writing in my experience. This article seems to suggests it's a conspiracy to keep the public out while signaling some kind of in-group membership. But I've always let Occam's razor guide me: a much simpler explanation is that many people (and academics are by no means free from this) are not good writers.
If the science isn't good enough then it won't get published. And if it's too simple then by default it won't get published.
So now you have complex science that can be well elucidated by someone who can write well except that the word count limit is half of what you need. Complexity ensues.
The journal then pushes back and says "x isn't clear enough." So then you have to make it clearer but still stay within the word count limit. Other things then need to be optimized.
* My example is controlled for bad writing.
Source: My wife is published in many high impact journals and continues to do so. The requirements are the bane of her existence.
At the time, the writing is clear because I have had the entire topic in my head for a month. But years later, I can see I did not clarify simple things which would have made the text easier to understand.
There are a handful of truly gifted writers who manage to write simply about complex ideas, but complicated ideas tend to force you into a really tedious process of making distinctions, or repeating which one of a set of closely related ideas you are referring to in a given clause.
So yes, academic style is often more readable for professors than the alternative. That doesn't mean there isn't crap out there: that Flaubert piece does not feel like it's using jargon in a way that clarifies anything to anyone, academic or otherwise. However, it's not my area of expertise, so I can only voice a suspicion.
(Not a professor, but I spent four years in grad school, originally hoping for a PhD and research position).
> Bosley (...) says that academic prose is often so riddled with professional jargon and needlessly complex syntax that even someone with a Ph.D. can’t understand a fellow Ph.D.’s work unless he or she comes from the very same discipline.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the article is "needlessly complex", it could also mean that the article deals with a complex topic, and therefore will be complex to read if you are not up to date with the topic. An article that makes no previous assumptions is ultimately called a book, and runs hundreds of pages long, as opposed to an 8-pages scientific article. Or, to make an analogy, it's not intended to be the full source code but a diff to previous research.
Of course, there is some bad writing around (like the IG Nobel prize, where students use longer words just because they can). But to claim that it makes for a majority of writing seems to me like a stretch.
But they don't.
There are media for longer form presentations of ideas -- dissertations, books, and lecture notes (a.k.a. early drafts of books) come to mind. Each of these is de facto mandatory for a successful academic career in science. A lot of academics also publish blogs, documented software packages, etc.
The complaints about jargon in journal articles and conference proceedings from non-scientists or from scientists talking about an area other than their own come across, to me, as kind of self-centered. Sometimes laypeople (or even scientifically literate generalists) aren't the target audience of a text. That doesn't mean there's some big problem with the world.
If I had a dime for every time someone who's never taken a non-intro science course complained about not understanding a scientific publication...
You talk about making no assumptions. I agree that this is excessive, but why can't an MSc within the relevant area be enough? Yes, you save some space by using a lot of jargon, but if you use a word only once in your article, would it kill to spell it out instead? And while jargon occasionally saves space, snobbish language never does.
I think the points about specificity and word count really explains this. Snobbish language is going to kill word count except if you're talking about words used that are not required for specificity.
The problem that I see is that translating ideas into words takes work. Jargon can also be translated. But unless the incentives are in place, this work won't be done.
(I set aside the question of people who deliberately obfuscate. This is simply compounding incompetence with fraud.)
I am talking the process of matching the expectations of an entire community and meeting the norms of that community. College students and some new grad students are coming as outsiders who don’t know the rules of the game, but they quickly figure out (from reading academic papers and scholarly books that are assigned to them and examining the profiles of their instructors) that “publishing” is the currency of the realm.
They will begin to match their terminology, writing styles, and references to meet the norms of this community and to get their own publishing output accepted. By the time they are ready to publish their first paper they’ve been effectively indoctrinated and will continue perpetuate academic writing styles.
> There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content. That, I think, about covers the ground.
I like this fellow.
Here's one of my favorites: https://randazza.files.wordpress.com/2007/06/cybernet-tradem...
I hope the emoji example doesn't catch on though. I found the example in that article harder to understand than the opaque version.
I hope so too, but for different reasons. Because loading of exotic fonts is of dubious safety [can't find a reasonable citation] and i'm a tinfoil hatter [no citation needed], i've turned off CSS remote fonts, leaving me with the following rendition of the emoji example :p
Funny. At least at the university textbook level I tend to find that US books cost twice as much, have 3-4 times the page count and cover half the topics compared to UK books.
The way it's described is always overly complex. The signals produced when using it are no longer sine waves and people have even done papers doing spectral analysis on the output. There's matrix math and all sorts of academic blah. But in the end you can do it in 4 lines of code:
s = (min(a,b,c)+max(a,b,c))/2;
A = a-s;
B = b-s;
C = c-s;
In EE terms, we add a common mode signal to all 3 in order to avoid hitting voltage limits for as long as possible. The load can't see it.
Anyway, the amount of analysis and math around this concept always seemed like a whole lot of intellectual self gratification, so I prefer to substitute a different M word for modulation.
Regarding the M, I once jokingly considered replacing "time" with "temporal dimension main anthropoperceptive vector" in a report to meet my academese quota. I didn't. I did, however, rewrite all active-voice sentences to passive-voice. A little bit of soul lost to academia.
Another problem is that people tend to write more complicated because the assume they sound more clever and intelligent when they do this and that their research looks more difficult.
That is one of the reasons I left science, nowadays it is mostly about the number of published papers, acquiring grant money and doing PR stuff. Actual science fell of the wagon 1 or 2 decades ago...
Unfortunately I have seen this exact thing over and over again.
There are lots of ways that we've tried to hide the essential complexity of programming. Some of them are higher level languages like Python, some of them are domain specific languages (like SQL), and other ideas are more radical (graphical programming languages and so on).
The obvious things to point out are that
1) The most successful of the alternatives aren't wholly jargon free.
2) They've certainly helped make parts of programming more accessible to people, but haven't lead to the "programming for all" dream that has been expressed before.
3) They aren't full replacements--people still are using programming languages with pointer arithmetic and manual memory management for some purposes.
4) In the cases where new languages are general purpose (as opposed to DSLs), there's no agreement that they're desirable. A Haskell enthusiast doesn't think Python is right to try and reduce "jargon", they just think it should be a different kind of jargon.
Analogies are always imprecise, but I think this is a helpful one. In programming, it's not always clear what is incidental complexity vs. essential complexity. In writing, it's the same thing. We can (mostly) agree that goto should be minimized, and comefrom entirely avoided, but past that point, we get a lot of disagreement.
This happens in everything from scienctific writing, to journalism, to food, to design, development, skateboarding and so on. But obviously a field were the very purpose is writing it shows itself in it's most extreme form possible.
This is true of vanishingly few academic disciplines.
Not really sure what you take issue with.
Yeah we're talking past each other.
My point is that writing isn't the primary purpose of most academic work, and even when publications are the primary measured output, it's rarely the case that the publications are being evaluated based upon the quality of the writing rather than the quality of the underlying work. It's possible for excellent science to be written up poorly. And also vice versa.
So thinking of writing as the main output of science is kind of misguided. In a way, the opposite of what you were saying is true -- the actual writing is of far less importance than the results that the writing is being used to describe, and so scientists struggle to communicate with the outside world not because writing is the point, but because it's this thing they have to do in between their experiments / proofs / software writing / etc.
I am simply pointing out that when writing is part of the way to communicate then that takes on a refinement process of it's own.
Just like simple notes become complex 12 tone music or bebob over time.
Academic writing is often a product of academic reading and so it ends up pushing the next generation into further obfuscation of meaning and towards even more clique writing. We are talking about fields like Psychology, social sciences, literature, biology, anthropology and so on.
I don't normally hear the problem being address in CS or in the Natural Sciences and I don't see the article points that out specifically. But writing is definitely one of the main forms of communication for those I mentioned and they are a large part of acedmia.
Sorry for the confusion :-)
> The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.
The gist of it is that there's an opposition between "text" and "ideal"; from the author's POV, ideals are really false idols, and Flaubert's genius is to literalize stuff (hard to figure what's meant by "Annunciation" out of context), that is to create text and not ideal.
1) what is the first encounter?
2) what is the devouring doppleganger? (Is 'devouring' merely poetic, or does it have some literal meaning that the doppleganger is devouring?)
3) What is the path of reification? Why is it similar to the path of carnalization of the spiritual?
There are some texts where every sentence leads to some such question, and the questions are never answered. The feeling I am left with is that there's an unlimited number of loose ends where the reader will be forced to guess at what the author means (or not guess, since you can just read by skimming over phrases like "the path of reification").
Here's, maybe, a more comprehensible (but difficult) segment from the beginning of the book (from Amazon's preview): The easiest formula that thematizes the relation of Flaubert's work to the Evangel, Scripture, is perhaps this: in the name of the Cross, the Gospel--the "good tidings"--is crossed out. His oeuvre is thus a kind of "non-Gospel" or dys-angelion-- a body of "bad tidings"; it testifies against the New Testament. History proves the promise of salvation to be a lie; but history is nevertheless absolutely determined by the New Testament, since it is nothing but per-version, its per-versio-- its reversal. Only against the backdrop of this crossed-out promise of the unheard-of love of the New Testament, which is affirmed completely, does history make sense and reveal its horrible truth.
And that's a huge problem for all the "clear writing" mandates; it's hard to give clear guidelines on what is and isn't clear.
Take the concept of a Monad from type theory, for example, which can be entirely explained in a few sentences: It's a type class which requires implementation of a bind function and a unit function. Also, a few equations involving bind and unit must always hold (only a few!). That's it. That is exactly what it is and nothing more (well, aside from the actual type signatures of bind and unit and the actual equations, which would have taken up even less space than this paragraph).
This bit of jargon only becomes complicated when you try and explain all of its implications. But there are infinitely many implications so, at a certain point, you just have to sit back and say, "Well, a Monad is exactly its definition and that's all...and its definition is most effectively expressed in terms of the jargon."
It's probably also worth noting that there are rarely-discussed personal and professional risks to making your scholarship too "accessible" if it's the sort of thing people outside of your field or outside of the academy altogether are even a little likely to find controversial enough to harass you over.
That said, I think much could be done to improve the situation by encouraging journals, academic presses, awards and other mechanisms of scholarship review to:
1. Establish pragmatic readability standards describing roughly who should find accepted articles readable, with or without a given condensed reference.
2. Where needed, develop and maintain condensed references (perhaps in conjunction with other institutions in the field) which provide enough background and terminology to meet the readability goal.
One example might be "to be accepted, your submission should be rated as readable with the aid of our condensed reference by a small sample of undergraduates in your specialty, masters students in your department, and doctoral candidates within your college." Even fairly permissive standards (i.e., just PhD candidates in your specialty) of this sort would guide most academics towards being much more conscious of how approachable their writing is.
>So I stopped – at random – and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”
From "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!"
In business, a huge part of what you do is communicate ideas to people. If you can't write in a way that others understand or aren't taking into consideration your intended audience's culture, educational level and other factors you're doing it wrong.