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The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing (theatlantic.com)
63 points by DarkContinent on Oct 27, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

I'm not going to say that there's isn't plenty of obscurantism, needless jargon, and just plain bad writing in academia. But, this article paints a pretty simplistic and one-sided picture. Let me take a quote that's emblematic of the problem from one of the professors (!?) in the article: “Academics, in general, don’t think about the public; they don't think about the average person, and they don't even think about their students when they write,”[Deborah S. Bosley] says. “Their intended audience is always their peers. That’s who they have to impress to get tenure.”

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.

I don't see much complaining about academic jargon in this article. There is some, but it's more about the tortuous syntax and sentences mostly devoid of meaning. I also disagree that it's about impressing their peers and more about writing in the 'usual' style for academic papers.

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?

I dunno, taking aim at jargon seems to be central to the article's purpose based on my reading of it:

"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.

I'd like to add that most high impact journals limit how much you can write which causes a lot of the complexity.

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.

As others in this discussion point out, the submitted article conflates the two (tortured syntax; jargon). The other explanation for tortured syntax in all domains is simpler: most people are bad writers.

It's not just that most people are bad writers; people generally get worse at basic writing skills (grammar, sentence structure) when they are writing about unfamiliar or complex topics. When academics are reporting on their ongoing research, at least part of what they want to say will be ideas with which they have only recently become familiar, and the clarity of their writing will suffer as a result.

I actually disagree. Speaking from writing computer science papers, the moment of writing is when I understand it the best. I often have to go back and read my old papers to remind myself of all of the nuances of the work. I think a worse problem is the opposite: academics understand what they're writing about so well, and have been steeped in it for so long, that they can't "see" all of the information they leave out.

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.

I don't think the article conflates the two at all, it lists each out separately and in no way implies that they are the same thing, only that they are part of the same problem.

Except that the issue I have, and some others have, is that jargon is not a problem.

I doubt it's about overstating the conclusions' complexity. It's usually more that "I have neither the time nor space to fit a thesis in this space".

is that style of writing actually easier for other professors to read?

Give me complicated syntax over unclear ideas any day.

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).

So, which papers are they citing as "needlessly complex"? Or, to be more precise, which papers are "needlessly complex", and which ones are "justified complex"? FTA:

> 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.

Building off what you're saying here, one important facet to academic writing not covered by the article is the concept of specificity. For most fields jargon is crafted to map single words/phrases to single concepts. In this way a 16 page article becomes an 8 page article at the expense of losing anyone that isn't already familiar with the mapping (or worse causing misunderstandings when jargon shares a word but doesn't match the accepted vernacular). Unfortunately, because of the stranglehold journalistic publications have on the dissemination of scientific work, there is little incentive to change styles or provide the tools for the non-specialist to consume the information because the general public will never have the opportunity to.

> because of the stranglehold journalistic publications have on the dissemination of scientific work...

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...

It would be misleading to say that only a majority of academic writing has unnecessary use of long words because this is almost universally true. I would guess that it's north of 90%.

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.

> 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.

I didn't really understand your comment, but I was talking about passive-voice and words like "utilize", "enunciate" and "veracity".

Having been an academic, this article confused two things. The use of jargon is often justified, as specialists often use particular words to encapsulated complicated but also well defined concepts. Having seen the confusion that comes when hidden assumptions are allowed to change (equivocation), the use of jargon will not go away.

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.)

Having been a bureaucrat, this article was spot on. Of course some jargon is necessary to communicate ideas in a particular domain. But many domains are now using fancy words merely as a social norm which serves to distance and elevate the clique.

I felt that the article missed an important factor: People mimic styles and conventions of a group they want to belong to. It starts in college when students get their first taste of journal articles and scholarly books, which comes with an implicit message: If you want to join the club & be taken seriously, this is what you should strive for in your own writing.

The article does mention this at multiple places. For example, “Their intended audience is always their peers. That’s who they have to impress to get tenure.”, "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" and some more.

This is bigger than trying to impress a journal editor to get a paper published, or convincing department chairs and academic committees in order to get tenure.

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.

Anyone upset about academic writing would also enjoy Fred Rodell's "Goodbye to Law Reviews", in which he pillories the writing in law review articles:

> 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.


> it is in the law reviews that a pennyworth of content is most frequently concealed beneath a pound of so-called style. The average law review writer is peculiarly able to say nothing with an air of great importance.

I like this fellow.

While I would agree, I still find Judge Posner and Justice Scalia's writing full of puckish eloquence and therefore entertaining...

The GP link was written in the 1930's so, I'll forgive him for failing to notice his successors.

Here's one of my favorites: https://randazza.files.wordpress.com/2007/06/cybernet-tradem...

Opaque writing is a pet peeve of mine as well. It seems to be a particularly strong vice of British academic authors. I tend to favour American texts as a result.

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 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


People who use emoji generally aren't using CSS remote fonts, so that isn't your problem. Emoji is part of the Unicode standard, so most modern system fonts support it by default. If you can't see the emoji then the problem is your system has out of date fonts, not that remote fonts are turned off.

Interesting! Indeed when i tried the URL in a random not-locked-down browser, i had the same issue :). Thanks for the tip, i'll look into that then.

It seems to be a particularly strong vice of British academic authors. I tend to favour American texts as a result.

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.

I hate the term "space vector modulation" https://www.google.com/#q=space+vector+modulation

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.

Bravo. Good example.

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.

When I was at university everybody was in the mindset of "better publish 1 thing 20 times instead of invent 3 new things." This resulted in overly complicated and even fake-y writing in order to hide the fact that the exact same thing was already published 10 times.

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...

Publish or perish mentality is insidious. I've seen some downright unethical, unscientific things in my short stint in academia. Glad I left for industry. Miss the intellectual stimulation though :(

Lots of defensive comments here. But it's plainly obvious that some academic papers are indeed just obfuscated writing for bad reasons: posing because of perceived prestige enjoyed by other indecipherable writers, or plain obfuscation to hide the thin substance of the paper.

> plain obfuscation to hide the thin substance of the paper.

Unfortunately I have seen this exact thing over and over again.

This made me think of an analogy: the idea that academic writing should be simple and jargon free is a lot like the idea that programming should be accessible to non-programmers.

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.

Academic writing is the story of what happens when a field become more and more sophisticated and more and more people try to make their mark by coining new expressions or concepts to stand out.

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.

> a field were the very purpose is writing

This is true of vanishingly few academic disciplines.

Yes but not in "Academic Writing" as per the title :)

Academic writing isn't a field; or if it is one, then it's not one of the (many) fields that's being discussed in this article.

I know but each of those fields communicate their findins through ex. writing, which is what adds to the ongoing complexity of the writing.

Not really sure what you take issue with.

>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.

Wait. I didn't say any of that.

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.

I think we were talking past one another, and I misinterpreted what you meant by "a field were the very purpose is writing" to mean "the purpose of academia is writing".

Sorry for the confusion :-)

Ahh ok :) Fine fine.

Er, the example from the article isn't that bad, if you're used to the jargon.

> 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.

Thanks for the explanation. I am suspicious, because what I never see in texts "like this" is a close correspondance between any other terminology offered and the literal text. That is, after reading your comment, I might ask:

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").

In this case, I don't think it's possible to answer without access to the original context, and there doesn't seem to be an electronic version of the book. I would also note that the book has been translated from the German, so the exact word choice hasn't been made by the original author.

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.

Yeah, the article just drops that paragraph in without explaining what's supposed to be so bad about it. Indeed, the article says almost nothing about what criteria we could use to judge if writing is needlessly complex or opaque.

> Indeed, the article says almost nothing about what criteria we could use to judge if writing is needlessly complex or opaque.

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.

On the other hand, we have perfectly reasonable jargon which become needlessly complicated when attempts are made to explain them in simple terms.

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."

Quite interesting is that I would argue such texts have only gotten more approachable and less complex as time has gone on. If anyone wants to experience complex writing they should enjoy some essays from the time of the Romantic movement and before that of the great poet Milton.

I think jargon is a bit of a scapegoat. Documentation and writing about technical topics has roughly the same risk; I think we've all seen sentences or paragraphs that are entirely impenetrable if you don't know the terminology and technology under discussion. Much of this writing could also be simplified and made approachable, but unpacking all of the jargon all of the time is an impractical burden on writing not meant for general consumption.

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.

It would be excellent if each discipline had a globally reachable dictionary and published works directly referenced that dictionary.

>There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read – something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I have this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”

>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!"

There are tools to remove redundant verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. I like this tool: https://www.textunited.com/blog/shorten-text-to-be-a-faster-... HemingwayApp is also neat, if a little opinionated about what should be edited out. Some phrases only sound right in certain contexts, and I never liked that about academic papers, because they presume an ivory tower readership when infact their target audience could be any body of people

Relevant: Hemingway app grades Hemingway very poorly. I suppose that is not a knock-down argument that it is bad, but it does make you wonder how carefully they calibrated it...

This is a topical article for me. I double majored in comp sci and business and business writing is in my top 5 most influential classes for me.

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.

This is true in software development too. I just got done reading a spec, and there is so much needless acronyms and jargon. Most of those acronyms can simply be replaced with one or two words, and it would vastly improve the readability of the spec. Check out the article on Space X banning most acronyms for a real world application of this.

Reid Hoffman said it best, when explaining why he wasn't going to change the world through the academy, when his advisor told him - "If more than a handful of people understand what you've written, it's insufficiently academic."

Surprised that Steven Pinker is on the vanguard of this clear writing movement, when his writing tends to be very opaque and difficult to parse. Started reading The Blank Slate, but couldn't finish it because it was so dry.

The economy will likely turn around after we quit paying all these bums $90,000 a year to write all this gobbledygook.

This sounds like something my grandpa would say about programming. :)

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