Friday, 12 October 2018

Academic Writing Conventions, Part 2

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on academic writing conventions: about why we use last names to refer to authors (here... as I understand it, this is largely due to the referencing systems being founded in the US, where this is a 'normal' thing to do).

There are so many strange things that we do in academic writing. One is that we tend to write in the third person, I think is in an attempt to sound more objective. In reality, this simply makes our writing inaccessible, passive, and dense. It raises unnecessary barriers to communication, making it harder for those outside academia to get the true message. No wonder so much research is misquoted: we do it to ourselves.

While I am a great fan of simple, direct language, academic writing is formal. However, when writing for a journal, I have been - and am - told that my style is too casual. My lack of academic reputation means that I cannot write that way and be published. I have to conform, or opt out. 

The referencing systems - APA, MLA etc - are arcane as well. The rigid and formulaic 'thou shalt' rules of full stops, italics and DOI numbers make it hard for those who don't know to get it right, and the in text citations make it hard for outsiders to read and understand. It would be wonderful if there was ONE set of rules that everyone followed, and that we got rid of all the others. I wouldn't care which one it was, as long as we had only one. All this nancying about with six different ones: let's just have system and make it global. 

The specificity of meanings with academic conventions, such as citations for in text and references for the bibliographic entries, make it hard for the non-academic reader to be clear what they are talking about. The same is true about methodological terms, where a single polysyllable can short-cut half a page of explanation to those in the know (such as 'qualitative' or 'action research'). These short-cuts make sense to me, if we are speaking to an educated audience. But if we want more people to hear the message, surely we can use some smarter ways to more clearly convey actual meanings when using these terms?

There are issues too with research being available to those who are interested: with both the cost and openness of access (read more here and here). These too are issues which need to be resolved, otherwise the partially predigested and inaccurate research outcomes will be all that the wider audience will receive. 

Recently I have been reading some research articles from the 1940s and 1960s. They were much more accessible: they were written in simpler language, citations were less common, and the writing was often direct, first person and clear. I would like to see academic writing return to this style, and stop being so up itself. Or should I say 'apparently pretentious'...?

While I agree that we should short-cut meaning where we can, if our research is careful, systematic and methodical, is it really necessary to 'look' objective by writing in the third person? Is it really necessary to make our writing so formal? Can we assist in text citations to fade into the background by publishing them in light grey so they fade out of the reader's eyeline? Could all technical terms be automatically linked to a glossary so that a non-academic reader could work out what underpins the terms used? 

Some things to think about.


Sam

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