Is Academic Writing Boring?

Is academic writing becoming… academic? Or, even worse, just plain boring? NYT asked this question in 2014, and bemoaned the growing separation of academia from journalism. The THES has also identified concerns about young academics’ writing and research as elegant, but not interesting. And earlier this year there was a twitter hoo-hah about downgrading the Guardian’s science content. I’m not sure if it is true that a new generation is any worse than previous generations in that respect – I’ve read a lot of dull research from a number of esteemed former colleagues, and in fact younger academics seem more interested in science communication generally. But it does sometimes feel as if the forces in academia today push towards a careerism that values metrical success and avowing your credentials as a bone fide scientist (your objective “worth” and integrity) over the creation and investigation of novel ideas. Note to the uninitiated: xeroxes replicate, rabbits reproduce, but new ideas always win.

Communication is at least a two-way street and the biggest problem with communication, according to George Bernard Shaw, is the illusion that it has taken place. I should know a little about communication: much of my developmental work (at least in the earlier days of my career) laid out how children communicate with one another, what stops that being effective, and how they learn from it. Brief answer: unless there are problems in language production, life (gender, ethnicity, prior expectations of conversation partners) gets in the way…

There’s a difference, of course, between not understanding something and being bored by it. But one often creates the other. So the onus ought to be partly on academics to communicate the significance and details of their work. The Daily Mail has a typically no nonsense take on how academic science is becoming unintelligible even for scientists to understand… They know what they like and they like what they know! The niggling problem with that mantra is that most people, not least the Mail’s editors, know fuck all about cutting edge science. So they gleefully missed the substance of Stephen Hawkins point that, “Most papers in Nature and Science today can be read only by specialists in their respective fields,” and descends into a tirade against what is simply banal academic writing such as: “Sand is an important substrate in the Namib Desert,” and, “‘After 8.9 years, all subjects were significantly older”. No doubt, these are good examples of bad writing. But that was surely not Hawkin’s point? Of course specialists’ papers are better understood by other specialists. That’s why they’re specialist. Public engagement, broader communication, is a different thing.

Having said that, academics often get away with writing badly or writing in a way that excludes or alienates the non-expert reader. “Tech-ing up” often says more about the insecurities of the author than the ignorance of the reader. In developmental psychology, for instance, it is much more reader-friendly to write about boys and girls than males and females. Although the field is awash with acronyms, including TA, LA, LT, DA, ALI, ASD, DLD and SLI in a single sentence is more likely a sign of someone trying to punish the reader who hasn’t fully digested every detail of the preceding paragraphs. But many researchers are now all about engaging actively with the public and communicating work more widely from blogs to TED talks to other media. And while there are some examples of poor writing, there are many more of excellent writing.

And academics, even physicists, can do funny. Yes they can, yes they can… In a revision to their Science Advances paper on Experimental Nonlocal and Surreal Bohian Trajectories – I know, what’s not to like? – the mischievous authors sneaked in a revision, substituting the phrase, “…the particles in this article are photons, as was the case in Kocsis et al….” with:

“The particles in this article (Although “the particles in this article” is in this particular article, consider “the particles in an article” as part of an article. As any articulate party would know, the particles in “the particles in an article” are “the” and “in,” whereas the articles in “the particles in an article” are “the” and “an,” but the particular article in “the particles in an article” is “the.” “p.s.” is all that is left when you take the “article” out of “particles.”) are photons, as was the case in Kocsis et al…”

Who knew MSWord’s find-replace function could be such a hoot? Get outta here!

If we ever complained about being bored as children my mother used to tell us, “well, you must be a boring person then”. This is not the sort of advice you’d find in modern day positive parenting books unless Katie Hopkins releases one soon, which is not off the cards! So while the onus to produce accessible writing is partly on academics to write and communicate clearly, it is also on others to try and understand and respect the quality and nuance in what researchers do and what research is for. Traditionally, it was journalists who mediated the communication process between academics and others. And that is perhaps where a key problem lies: journalism is now operating in a context where science is not as trusted as it once was. And whereas journalism already had a low bar, the “hotter” a topic (climate change, vaccination) the more ulterior agendas may wilfully be perceived to slip in to influence the science. While it is always right to hold experts’ feet to the fire and scrutinise their claims and authority, when scrutiny is replaced with a total failure to engage, we’re in trouble.