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, dictionary.com 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 Dictionary.com has too many academics working for them.
We’ve all heard the story. You place a frog in a pot of boiling water and it jumps out to safety. You put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat and it cooks to death. It’s a great metaphor. If we are unaware of problems that develop slowly, we may never recognize there is something to be concerned about until it is too late.
Recently, a writer describing a contemporary musical number used the metaphor (here) to explain how “people wouldn’t realize they’ve been suckered into a musical until it was too late.”
However, the truth is that the story is not true. You put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog gets agitated and jumps out. In fact, it’s really hard to keep a frog still enough in a pot of water to test the theory. Some scientists did this in the 1800s producing mixed evidence for the boiling frog story. Today experts generally agree that the boiling frog story is hogwash, or perhaps better said, “frogwash”.
One of the responsibilities I have as editor of the academic journal Agriculture and Human Values is to invite scholars to evaluate papers submitted for publication. But soliciting reviewers is difficult. It takes time to identify potential reviewers and to extend the review invitation. In 2015, I made 900 invitations to scholars to review papers submitted to the journal. Two thirds of those who were invited agreed to review and most provided excellent reports, which helped me make the difficult decision of accepting or rejecting papers for publication. But one-third of invited reviewers declined to review. I use an online manuscript management system to send an email to reviewers asking them to accept or decline the review request. When an invited reviewer declines, the reviewer is asked to provide a reason. Almost half of those who declined gave no reason for their unwillingness or inability to review the paper.
This afternoon I sent a request to a scholar to review a paper for me. Within minutes the person decline but did not give me a reason. I get really annoyed when a scholar says “no” without giving me a reason. Give me a reason! I’ll take almost any excuse over nothing. For example, sometimes invited reviewers give trivial reasons, as in “I am too busy now.” I can accept that. That is better than offering no reason at all. Giving a reason shows respect. Not giving a reason is what masters do to servants, officers do to conscripted soldiers, and kings do to subjects.
In 1978, a Harvard University professor published the results of an interesting experiment in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the experiment, a person approached adults waiting in a line to make photocopies and asked, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Not surprisingly, the request to cut in front of others waiting to use the same machine was frequently declined – in this case, 40% of the time. When a meaningful reason was given for the request, as in “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” the number of persons refusing the request to cut in line declined to only 6%; thus, most people let the person cut in line. Interestingly, when a trivial reason was given for the request, as in “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” the rate of refusal was almost identical to the case when a meaningful reason was given. This is interesting, because the reason given in the latter case was the same reason that others had for standing in the line. In other words, all that mattered for those waiting in line was that a reason be given for the request that created a burden for them – “even if the reason conveyed no information,” according to the study. Simply stated, people appreciate and will respond to a reason, even if it is a trivial one.
So, if you ask for my help, I’ll probably tell you “no”, but at least I’ll give you a reason.