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Three terrible academic habits

There’s been a lot of criticism lately of badly written science, following the publication of Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences in which Billig writes:

“The author is not someone who is offering criticisms as an outsider looking in upon a strange world. I am an insider, a social scientist, and I am publically criticising my fellows for their ways of writing…

…Because social scientific disciplines are so diverse today, the young apprentice academic has to do more than become a ‘sociologist’ or an ‘anthropologist’ or a ‘psychologist’. Typically, they have to associate themselves with a specific approach, a theoretical perspective or an already existing body of work. To do this, they have to accept the technical terminology of their chosen world, as well as the assumption that this technical terminology is superior to ordinary language. And then they are expected to promote their own work, their approach and the language of their approach.”

Billig limits his critique to the social sciences, but problems with writing styles run across the board. This is one of the first lessons of Stanford’s Writing in the Sciences course which only just started, where we are reminded that in general we should always write in the active voice rather than the passive voice, with the exception of when writing a methods section. When scientists avoid using the simple words “we” and “I”, things can get incredibly convoluted. It has become commonplace for academics to avoid using such words, communicating everything passively, which is more cognitively taxing and obscures important information. The classic example of good science writing (that we receive on Kristin Sainani’s course), as well as being a classic example of outstanding science, is Watson and Crick’s landmark paper which begins: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.)”. The journal Science‘s style guidelines state “Use active voice when suitable, particularly when necessary for correct syntax (e.g. “To address this possibility, we constructed…”).

Billig writes: “the defenders of technical jargon seem to overlook that academic terminology is heavily weighted towards nouns and noun phrases, with verbs, by comparison, hardly getting a look in. For me, that characteristic of contemporary academic writing is highly significant.” The very same message is delivered in the Stanford course. To say anything clearly you must use verbs and not fall into the “terrible academic habit” of finding ways to turn them into nouns. We learn that academics can also be guilty of pushing verbs to the end of the sentence, adding dead weight and generally being unnecessarily wordy, which are all recipes for ambiguity. Some of the examples contained in Sainani’s course (that extend to a wide range of scientific disciplines, not just in the social sciences) really are staggering in the level of fluff that can be cut from academic work while actually increasing meaning rather than reducing it.

If communication is something you do – which I guess includes pretty much everyone – then why not join me and 20,000 others and sign up for Stanford’s completely free Writing in the Sciences course?

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Image Credit: Flickr/Macrj


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