Many academics don’t know how to write. That is not only my opinion. In 2014, Chronicle published an article boldly entitled “why academics stink at writing” by Steven Pinker—a distinguished academic himself. He starts his premise with the following question:
Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?
Multiple possible reasons are mentioned, such as “the reviewers made me do it” or “we’re too deep into specialty knowledge, there’s no other way to put things”. In The Atlantic, Deborah S. Bosley, a clear-writing consultant and former University of North Carolina English professor, suggests another one I tend to agree with:
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. Their intended audience is always their peers. That’s who they have to impress to get tenure.
I feel very much the same when writing a paper. The more peer review feedback I receive from my works, the more convoluted I feel my future text will become. It doesn’t help that half the papers you read in your field are not in English but in what Pinker calls academese. After a few years of reading and writing smelly stuff like this, I feel like this subconsciously influences my own writing in other domains, such as on my blog and in my non-academic books. And I do not like that one bit!
Yet, academics have the power to change the world with their research—provided they take the trouble to clearly communicate their results. In other words, academics can change the world if they stop talking only to their peers. This is exactly what I meant while explaining social debt in development teams.
Examples of Academese Gems
Let’s, just for fun, take a look at a few gems—excerpts I had to slog through and I still do not quite understand. The term common sense seems a long way off here. Perhaps this is just because I’m not familiar enough with the specific domains. Perhaps this is just because I’m becoming more and more disgusted by the stack of junk papers. Who knows.
How about something simple to start with? The definition of the Constructive Design Approach, according to Kramer et al.:
The main principle on which the approach is based is that structure is fundamental to system design, construction and evolution. Structure should be explicitly described and preserved during the software development process ie. given an appropriate software architecture, system structure is stable and can be used to describe the system design, to construct the actual system and as the basis for system modification and evolution. Thus the main structural design is retained in the constructed system itself.
After re-reading this section a few times, I still have no clue what the authors mean by this. The figure that accompanies the “system design structure” does not particularly help either. Granted, I’m not knee-deep into design, but my lack of knowledge is exactly what let me to this paper: to find out what constructive design was all about.
The words used in the above text make some sense if used separately. I can imagine something when thinking of “structure” or “software development process”. But how about an example that completely lost me even in that sense, lifted from Pinker’s article:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure.
Try re-reading that a few times. The effect is the same as swallowing a big chunk of ice cream: brain freeze.
Most Academese is less obviously bad (should I write obnoxious here?) though. The Elsevier and Taylor & Francis journals are particularly good at publishing these kinds of unreadable “prose”. At our university, PhD students have to finish a course called Academic Writing that explicitly teach about concepts such as hedging. Hedging is the practice of adding more unnecessary words to a sentence to soften up your findings, as if you do not really stand by it. Terms such as “perhaps”, “could”, and “it seems that” are used to create cover in case a peer reviewer will open fire. Funnily enough, Pinker criticizes the practice of hedging, while we as students are heavily encouraged to adopt it. To render the entire contents of the course useless would be stretching it a bit too far though. It did brush up my English vocabulary and brought my attention to the correct usage of past/present/future tenses in different sections of a paper.
To the experienced clean coder, many bad practices (hedging, shudder quotes, metaconcepts, …) mentioned by Pinker sound suspiciously familiar. They seem to represent in the writer’s world what code smells represent in the programmer’s world. Someone should write a Refactoring book with the subtitle Improving the Text of Unclear Prose instead of Fowler’s Improving the Design of Existing Code. Oh wait, someone sort of did: Steven Pinker himself, in his essay Why Academic Writing Stinks And How To Fix It.
Sadly, Academese isn’t limited to papers. The few poor sods who do try to compile their research findings of the past decade into a book usually end up writing just as bad. Choosing to publish with Routledge, the what they call “Publisher of Professional & Academic Books”, is the nail in the coffin. Both Schön’s Reflective Practitioner and Claes' Waken bij Werkelijkheid felt like wading through a swamp. I think I drowned before I reached the promised land of good ideas.
It doesn’t always have to be this way. Cal Newport’s work, for example, is both clear and concise. And Cal is a theoretical computer scientist: up to his neck into complex theories.
This academic problem with words reminds me of Bullshit Bingo, a game that caused lots of grins and we frequently played (in our minds, of course!) when I was working in the industry and attending way too much “business” meetings. Sentences like “The business-to-business segment is still fault-tolerant, we need to go the extra mile to think outside the box!" were flung all over the meeting room. It sucked all the energy out of us and usually left us completely demotivated. Isn’t business jargon lovely? Now that I think of it, I’m not sure whether Academese is that much worse than Businese.
Nobody dared to shout Bingo! though. What a missed opportunity.