UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

February 4, 2009

WHY ACADEMIC WRITING IS SO HARD TO READ

Misty Harris CanWest News Service - Next to the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the physics of Donald Trump's hairstyle, it may be the biggest scientific enigma of our time: how the world's brightest minds can write papers so stilted and boring your IQ seems to drop as you read them.

Kaj Sand-Jensen, a professor of biology at the University of Copenhagen, has tackled this familiar head-scratcher by analyzing the prose of fellow academics and isolating stylistic flaws. He concludes that the majority of scientific research publications owe their descent into dullsville to 10 key characteristics. . .

The Oikos article opens with a quote from fish biologist Erik Ursin, who remarks that hell is "sitting on a hot stone reading your own scientific publication."

It then delves into the chief culprits behind boring scholarly prose, the first of which is avoiding focus. "This tactic ensures that the reader will have no clue about the aims and direction of the author's thoughts" while simultaneously allowing the scientist to "hide his lack of original ideas," according to the article.

Shunning originality and personality ranks second, with Sand-Jensen wryly recommending that even the most momentous breakthroughs be reported "with no sense of excitement or enthusiasm."

Rounding out the Top 10 are writing long contributions, removing implications and speculations, leaving out illustrations, omitting necessary steps of reasoning, excessive use of abbreviations and technical terms, suppressing humor and expressive language, degrading species and biology to statistical elements and quoting numerous papers for self-evident statements.

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