Why Don’t Academics Write Clearly?

Post-doc writes in draft paper: “Conceptually, it seems reasonable to argue that bi-interactional similarity facilitates cohesion in incipient affiliates of Alcoholics Anonymous by triggering likeability and cohesion in self and observer, thereby infusing social and individual identity with a subjective sense of connection”.

Me, scribbling note to post-doc in margin: “Does this mean that people like AA more if the people at the meeting are like them? If so, why not just say that?”.

I have had these exchanges with young scholars more times than I can count. I understand fully why they don’t “just say that”. They have been trained to believe that the fewer the people who comprehend you, the more scholarly you are. They have been taught to value lingo over clarity. And they believe — accurately — that their career success depends in no small measure on impressing other people who write in the same impenetrable style which they are trying to emulate.

But I go on writing my “Why not just say that?” comment year after year. I don’t do it because I expect to be listened to right away, but because I hope that when these brilliant young people are on the other side of career security, they will remember dimly that someone, somewhere told them it really is okay to let other people understand what you think.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.