Academic gobbledygook

Much has been written about the poor quality of academic writing. Examples include Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychology professor, explaining why academics stink at writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and author Victoria Clayton, describing the needless complexity of academic writing in an article in The Atlantic. Pinker points to literary analysis (e.g., when scholars “lose sight of whom they are writing for”), cognitive science (e.g., when scholars know too much and have “difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know”) as well as economic incentives (e.g., because scholars have “few incentives for writing well”). According to Clayton, “Academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers.”

When are scholars going to get the message?

The following is the first sentence in the introduction of a paper submitted to Agriculture and Human Values: “This paper will explore how environmental documentaries through their use of direct address and creative aesthetics and imaginaries foreground a range of cautionary tales around the ethical importance of modes of food production, waste, and (over)consumption.” The paper concludes with this: “The toxic materiality of the eco-documentary … is a matter of a complex network of social and material effects, involving not only the immediate material of the DVD or film strip, but also the design and mass manufacture of technology, travel and transportation, land use and accessibility.”

I rejected the paper for publication. This is what I wanted to say to the author: “I am rejecting your paper because it is utterly incomprehensible. Too much of it is scholarly mumbo jumbo and academic goggledygook. I do not know what you are saying and don’t want to spend any more time trying to figure it out. Learn how to write clearly and simply before submitting a paper to my journal.”

Of course I was more diplomatic. My response began this way: “Critiques of the food system and assessments of ethical issues relating to food production fit within the aims and scope of this journal. However, I struggle to see the contribution of your paper to the kinds of debates we see published here and in similar outlets …”


Interestingly, gives this definition for goggledygook: “language characterized by circumlocution and jargon, usually hard to understand.” Circumlocution? Really? Merriam-Webster’s is better: “wordy and generally unintelligible jargon.” Maybe has too many academics working for them.



Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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