Why can’t academic research be written in plain language?

Johns Hopkins University

I am starting this post with a bit of a tangent that I will revisit at the end.

In addition to working full-time as a technical writer, volunteering as a non-profit director, and exploring full-time studies as a potential PhD student (and still finding time to read, be physically active, and write on here), I also work part-time (or casually you might say) as a research snapshot writer. Now, you might be thinking, What is a research snapshot writer?

Research snapshot writer

Here is a snapshot of what a research snapshot writer does (see what I did there?): individuals who hold this illustrious job title will generally find themselves reading academic research articles and summarizing in plain language the objectives, methods, and findings of the research. The most important part of that being the “in plain language” portion. Ok, but wait, what is plain language?

Plain language writing

Borrowing from the United States, plain language writing is:

Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

That definition comes from the Plain Writing Act of 2010—which is somewhat ironic because the act itself is not exactly written in “plain writing”, nor is any act (or, really, anything produced by any government ever). But, I digress.

Plain language writing is just that, writing plainly or simply, and in such a way that the intended audience can easily and quickly understand (and act on, if necessary) the message. For example, in public health promotion, the audience is often the public, and the public, on average, can only read at around a sixth-grade level. Therefore, public health promoters must ensure that their written products are appropriate for that audience.

Simple right? Ok, on to the topic of this post.

Complexity of academic writing

The fact that jobs exists to translate academic research into plain language should tell you something about the complexity of academic writing. But, I am always left wondering, why does academic writing have to be so complex? Can’t researchers just write clearly and simply?

I found the following possible reasons offered on a Quora forum (I am paraphrasing here):

  • ‘Academic writing is not complex, you just aren’t the intended audience’
  • ‘Academics are smart in their field, but poorly educated in writing’
  • ‘Academics write in a complex way to be respected by their peers’
  • ‘Complex topics cannot be written about in a simple way’

Below, I will reflect on those possible reasons.

‘Academic writing is not complex, you just aren’t the intended audience’

Tony Meiners: It filters out people who can't understand these pieces of writing or don't want to put any effort into understanding them. Historically, it has always been like that.

Many academics argue that the intended audience of academic writing is fellow academics and, therefore, it is written appropriately for said audience. While this argument might be true to some extent, it falls apart when you consider the growth of plain language writing careers, many with the sole purpose of translating academic research. Why would those jobs exist if there was no need for them?

In some areas of research, certainly more specialized ones, I can respect the argument that readers of academic research are typically fellow researchers. But, there is something to be said for always writing clearly because you never know who might encounter the research. For example, a brilliant student who might have made a considerable contribution to a field of study could be turned off by the complexity of the language used in their first journal article encounter and forgo continuation in the field.

Barry Rountree: …the writing itself tries to communicate an idea while respecting the fact that the reader is a busy person and has a high degree of familiarity with the topic.

The argument that academic writing is intended for an audience of academics only, who are familiar with the topic, is seriously flawed in fields with near-immediate practical benefit. In health, for example, it could take 17 years or more for important research findings to be put into practice, and much of that lag can be attributed to how inaccessible the research is. That means people and healthcare systems do not benefit from those findings.

Students studying inside State Library of La Trobe University
State Library of La Trobe University

‘Academics are smart in their field, but poorly educated in writing’

Donald McMiken: It doesn’t have to be difficult to understand the writing, except that good writing does not come easily, and most academics are not trained to write well.

This argument seems like an oxymoron. How can a highly educated person, with years of experience writing for academic audiences, be poorly trained in writing?

Well, the answer is actually elementary: it’s because most universities don’t teach students how to write, let alone write in plain language. In the above linked article, the following comment by Richard Stren, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, emphasizes the issue perfectly:

Universities teach subject matter, not writing. It is assumed that by reading academic articles, students will absorb how to write. It doesn’t work. I gave out a lot of Cs.

The irony, of course, is that by reading academic articles, students incorrectly assume that those writing styles are correct and, even, preferred. To make matters worse, most academic publishers do not dismiss submissions because of writing inability or language complexity (as far as I have experienced); thus, the issue persists.

During my undergraduate degree, if someone had told me that many academics are poorly educated in writing, I’d think they were crazy. I mean, how can the smartest of us be poorly educated in the most basic of teachings? But, now that I have read many hundreds of journal articles, I can see the truth of it.

‘Academics write that way because they want to be respected’

Jean Rafenski Reynolds: They think that if they write plainly and simply, people won’t respect them.

There is some merit to this argument, whether academics would like to admit it. In fact, I experienced it first hand. During my undergraduate studies, I thought I needed to write similarly to the journal articles we were assigned for my writing to be taken seriously, so I used a thesaurus a lot (I need to include lots of big words!). Many students likely feel the same way, and those feelings carry into their academic careers.

Another possible reason is social conformity. Have you ever seen those experiments where several people enter an elevator looking the wrong way, and it pressures others to conform to the behaviour? Well, maybe that is what is happening with academic writing. Everyone else is writing a bunch of gobbledygook, so I have to too!

The responsibility for fixing the above beliefs and behaviours rests with the following groups:

  • Colleges and Universities
  • Professors, Lecturers, Teachers
  • Academic Publishers
  • All of Us

Colleges and universities should have mandatory plain language writing courses. Professors, lecturers, and teachers should encourage their students to write in plain language. Academic publishers should adopt submission policies that encourage authors to write in plain language, going as far as dismissing article submissions because of writing inability or language complexity. And, all of us need to start writing in plain language so that social conformity will start working against complex writing.

Rupa Iyengar: I think [researchers] want to prove to themselves that their point of view is right, but may not have enough justification. So they use complex language to explain so that it can be muddled up [and] interpreted in several ways.

A more accusatory argument is that academics are knowingly and purposely writing obscurely because it benefits them. A couple of months ago, I was reading about a research study that appeared to do just that—it was an investigation of a new public health program. Unfortunately, most of the findings were insignificant, which suggested that the program was ineffective. However, in their conclusions, the authors avoid saying as much and, instead, write that their findings showed promise and that further research is required.

In the above example, if someone were to only read the article’s abstract or conclusion, they might falsely assume that the program was shown to be effective. When in reality, the opposite was true. One could argue that the authors purposely obscured their findings in the hope that they would be granted more funds to continue their research, and I would entertain such an argument.

‘Complex topics cannot be written about in a simple way’

Jean Rafenski Reynolds: Complex thinking can be difficult to understand, especially if you don’t have a background in the subject.

This argument depends on the depth of the writing. On the surface (or at a high level), I think that all academic writing can be done plainly and in a way that the public can easily and quickly understand. But, as you delve deeper into a topic, the language becomes more complex—and there is a simple reason for this, which I will come back to.

WIRED has a series of videos on YouTube where they have a research expert explain and discuss their field of study with five different people with varying degrees of experience. For example, in one video, Donna Strickland, a Nobel-winning physics professor from the University of Waterloo (my former university), talks about lasers with a child, a teenager, a college student, a graduate student, and finally, a fellow academic. As you might expect, the complexity of Donna’s language increases from start to finish.

The above example shows that, on the surface, academic topics can be discussed and written about plainly. But, getting back to why it gets more complex the deeper you go, language tends to evolve with a field of study. During my undergraduate degree in anthropology, for example, I was introduced to several terms only used (and mostly understood) by anthropologists. Those types of terms are referred to as jargon, and that is the unfortunate consequence of increasingly specialized knowledge—the complexity of language increases.

However, circling back to an earlier argument, there is something to be said for always writing clearly because you never know who might encounter the research. Often, jargon cannot and should not be avoided in academic research. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make academic research more accessible. For example, online articles could use tooltips to define complex terms, or publishers could enforce policies that would make surface information more understandable. For example: abstracts must be free from jargon and written in plain language.

Arguing that complex topics cannot be written about in plain language is lazy. If that were the case, knowledge translation-type careers (such as technical writing, knowledge brokering, and research snapshot writing) wouldn’t exist.

Classroom at Kansai University
Classroom at Kansai University

Conclusions, takeaways, closing thoughts, etc.

As someone who has completed a 5-year undergraduate BA honours degree, a 1-year graduate MA degree, and a 2-year graduate/professional MPH degree—not to mention the multiple years of reading and translating academic research in both paid and volunteer roles—I feel I have a pretty good sense of the style of academic writing and can offer a decently reliable judgement on its complexity. And, in my opinion, academic writing is, in most cases, needlessly complex.

Above, I reflected on some people’s opinions on the complexity of academic writing and offered suggestions on how academic writing could be made more accessible. To summarize those suggestions:

  • Plain language writing should be taught at all levels of education (especially research-producing institutions) and it should be seen as the gold standard of academic writing.
  • Authors everywhere—whether a student writing an essay or an academic writing a research article—should be writing in plain language and should always consider the accessibility of their text.
  • Academic publishers should adopt submission policies that encourage authors to write in plain language, going as far as dismissing article submissions because of writing inability and language complexity.
  • Academic publishers (especially online journals) should make articles more accessible by using functions, such as tooltips, to make complex terms or concepts more understandable.
  • Research article abstracts (at the very least) should be written in plain language. Though, I think, as much of the article should be written in plain language as possible.

There are, of course, many things that could be done to make academic research more accessible, but those are some of the ideas I had while thinking and writing about this topic.

Getting back to my tangent (and maybe going off on another)

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I work part-time as a research snapshot writer where I read academic articles and summarize in plain language the objectives, methods, and findings of the research. I do this because (A) I am getting paid to do so and, more importantly, (B) because there is a need for it.

The value of academic research is immense but, unfortunately, it is inaccessible to most people. This is even more unfortunate when it is inaccessible to people that could make use of it to improve things like our health and wellbeing. Jobs that focus on the translation of knowledge (specifically academic knowledge, like research snapshot writers) are increasing as a result, but this isn’t something academia should be proud of. The increasing demand for knowledge translation is evidence of a problem, and creating jobs to perform the function is only a band-aid.

In fact, maybe knowledge translation is part of the problem, because it acts as a crutch (this would be a good topic for another post actually). If academic research were more accessible when published, there would be no need for knowledge translation. Accessibility should be a goal of modern academic research, and it starts with writing in plain language.

To be clear, and in closing, I enjoy my job as a research snapshot writer and I think it is an important job in today’s world. But, I also think it should be the responsibility of academics to ensure their research is accessible to everyone that could benefit from it, not just other occupants of the ivory tower.