Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Academic Writing

Following up on a thread by Andrew Sullivan, Stephen Walt asks why academic writing is often bad. He comes up with several reasonable arguments--that confusing lingo sounds sophisticated, for example, or makes it easier to avoid taking clear stances that can be disproved.

But I think he misses the most important reason, which is that there is no incentive to write well. There is, in fact, every incentive not to take the time required. You can publish without writing well if your ideas are good enough. Academic journal editors take their positions for a variety of reasons, none of which are related to quality of writing. They publish articles based on criteria mostly unrelated to writing per se. Review committees judge faculty members' publications generally by looking at the quality of the journal, which is unrelated to quality of writing.

As chair, if I had a junior faculty member tell me they had an article manuscript ready for submission, and they chould choose between a) spending hours rewriting just to perfect the language; or b) submit it and spend those hours working on their next project, it would be irresponsible of me to recommend "a" unless I was convinced that the hours of work would actually make the article so much better that it could be submitted to a higher quality journal. It's safe to say that such a situation is extremely rare.

I do want to add that there is plenty of good academic writing, and this debate tends to get overblown. But as with just about everything, if you want to see real improvement in this area you have to change the incentive structure.


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