Nooshin Warren and her colleagues had the excellent idea to give advice to academics on making their writing intelligible. You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that a lot of academic research isn’t understood but you shouldn’t be shocked. One problem is the curse of knowledge.
Academics Are Specialists: Which Makes Communication Hard
Academics tend to be specialists. (For more on specialists and generalists see here). They really, really, really know something in great detail. (Often something so small that no one else cares about it but let’s not be negative). The challenge is that as you know something in more detail you find it hard to appreciate that others don’t know as much. They don’t know what you are talking about as you leave out vital pieces of information that others don’t know but you assume they must. “That goes without saying” is pretty much the curse of knowledge in bite-sized form.
Think of when you give directions. (For younger readers this used to happen a lot — I appreciate we can mostly just stare at our phones nowadays). It is really hard to think back to what a person who doesn’t know the route is likely to see and what they will miss. Lots of directions are pretty hard to understand as the speaker leaves out crucial information that is just assumed because it seems obvious to the speaker.
The Curse Of Knowledge In Academia
The authors get at the problem of bad academic writing through a variety of methods. They survey academics. Do we really understand all the articles that we read? No, of course not. (Surprisingly honest of the responding academics to admit it though).
To run some experiments they use a couple of populations. My favorite is that in one experiment they clearly wanted to test academics so they went for Ph.D. students. That is a very university thing to do. After all the Ph.D. students are there to do the slightly boring tasks that the professors don’t want to do.
The authors also investigated a total of 1,640 articles from the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, and the Journal of Consumer Research. (Apparently, they decided that the final UT Dallas marketing “A” journal, Marketing Science, was supposed to be undecipherable).
What Makes For Bad Writing?
What they suggest makes for bad writing isn’t too surprising.
When marketing scholars know more about a research project, they use more abstract, technical, and passive writing to describe it.Warren, Farmer, Gu and Warren (2021) page 42
Abstraction — giving less specific details. Technical writing — a fancier way of saying jargon. Finally, passive writing. As someone who loves my passive sentences (I often don’t want to be clear when I’m criticizing prior work) this hurt a little. But I accept they do have a point.
It is the very fact that you are a subject matter expert that makes it harder for you to communicate your ideas. Bit of a shame really if the people who are the better communicators are the most ignorant. (I can think of a few great communicators who this description fits to be honest. I definitely think during the Covid pandemic the epidemiologists were clearly beaten in clarity of communication by a collection of people who had just about mastered not touching the hot stove).
Why Stop Now? I’m Having A Good Time
Who cares if no one can understand your work? Bamboozling the reader is surely a sign that you are worthy of being an academic. The authors suggest that papers which confuse the reader pay the ultimate price. Those writing them don’t get cited as much. A terrible punishment, akin to being hung, drawn, and quartered, for an academic.
They also provide a helpful Writing Clarity Calculator (http://writingclaritycalculator.com/)
For more on the curse of knowledge see here.
Read: Nooshin L. Warren, Matthew Farmer, Tianyu Gu, and Caleb Warren (2021) Marketing Ideas: How to Write Research Articles that Readers Understand and Cite, Journal Of Marketing, 85(5) page 42-57