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]

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.