Academic Writing: Sacrificing Information in the Name of "Gobbledygook"?

by Melissa MacAulay

Published at 2014-12-02

Earlier this year, University of Toronto Press’ Journal of Scholarly Publishing featured a book review of Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2013). In it, reviewer Stephen K. Donovan talks about academic writing and the unfortunate trend of unnecessarily big words and complicated sentence structures. Academic writing has never been easy reading; no one expects you to curl up in bed with the latest issue of the American Sociological Review. According to both Billig and Donovan, however, the situation is getting rather out of hand. 

What We Think Good Writing Is

Academics today are expected to publish more than ever, resulting in more time spent writing and less time spent thinking. In light of this publish-or-perish state of affairs, part of what makes a “good” academic is the ability to use “newly minted nouns of uncertain definition” and hide “shallowness and lack of original thought behind a smokescreen of gobbledygook.”

Donovan’s use of “gobbledygook” is hardly an exaggeration. Earlier this year, two highly reputable scholarly publishers had to remove over 120 papers from their publications after it was discovered that the papers were entirely computer-generated by a program called SCIgen, which was created for fun by grad students at MIT (fake your own scholarly paper here: The fact that these “fake” papers reached publication not only tells us something about how academics like to amuse themselves, but also says something about the “real” academic writing alongside which it was so easily disguised. As Donovan asks, “Why is information sacrificed on the altar of dense, noun-rich prose? It seems so futile.”

Newcomers to the ivory tower often liken the experience of grad school to learning an entirely new language via immersion. And it’s no wonder, when academics are being trained to say things like (to use a hypothetical example from my own academic field), “Epistemic justification for the belief that the temporal dimension has an intrinsic directedness comes largely from the phenomenological features of our qualia.” Why not simply say, “Experience suggests that time has a direction”? 

Five Tips for Better Writing

Luckily, Donovan sums up the six recommendations provided in Billig’s book for academic writers looking to buck this trend:  

1.) Write in simple language and avoid dense technical terms: “Phenomenological features of qualia”? How about “experience?”

2.) Reduce the number of passive sentences: We can all use a quick refresher on active vs. passive voice from time to time. 

3.) Rely on active verbs rather than technical nouns or noun phrases: Instead of saying something “is an improvement” or “is an objectification,” why not say that something “improves” or “objectifies”?

4.) Avoid personal attachment to technical terms: There is a time and a place for “epistemic justification,” but do recognize that sometimes you’re just talking about plain old “reasons.”

And of course,

5.) Treat these recommendations as guidelines, not rigid rules: As we writers and editors very well know!

Other Reviews

JSP regularly features excellent reviews of books about academic writing, such as Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published (Pat Thompson and Barbara Kamler, 2013), How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them (Ben Yagoda, 2013), and Polishing your Prose: How to Turn First Drafts into Finished Work (Steven M. Cahn and Victor L. Cahn, 2013).