Is Unnecessary Complexity Ruining Academic Research?

Entering college seemed like it’d the best time of your life just started. You most likely have the best time with other students, but what about the stuff you’re meant to learn? As soon as you open your first book of specialized literature you’re somewhat hit by cryptic language. The same goes for any average person who’s interested in reading new academic research about topics of his interest. But does the academic language have to be that complex? Does it ruin further academic research?

A convoluted mass of unnecessarily long words

Students and average people alike always are confronted with a language they don’t understand. Albeit a piece could be written in their mother tongue. One should think that if a piece is written in a language you know by heart, you should easily be able to understand its meaning. However, in academic research and also publications by government agencies it’s often not the case. Let’s take a look at this example by Barbara Vinken’s ‘Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out’, published by Stanford University Press:

“The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.”

How did you fare? Are you able to make out what the scholar means to communicate without checking a dictionary or a thesaurus?

Communication barriers are being drawn

Technically, any academic research is supposed to be understood by the average human. It should be written in a style so that your neighbor who hasn’t studied your subject can understand your paper. But that’s only as far as the theory goes. 

The more cryptic and intricate any text is written, it appears as if it’s not meant to be understood by an average person or by first-year students. It looks as if it’s written only for one particular club to communicate ideas to like-minded people. And you’re not in it. Well, you’re going to join the club once you adapt to the academic writing style. But it’s still going to take you quite a while to actually understand what other scholars are writing. 

Make no mistake, even scholars who have long graduated and moved on with their academic research careers cannot understand such pieces. That means academic research is made more complex than it actually has to be. If colleagues in your field cannot understand what you mean to portray, how can the ongoing academic discussion evolve? It actually can’t and that’s only due to these communication barriers. And that’s why academic research is ruined by its unnecessary complexity.

You don’t sound more intelligible

Most people who simply adapt to such complex writing styles for academic research want to sound intelligent. They want to impress their professors at university as well as other scholars in their area. You may sound intelligent in using words an average human doesn’t understand. In fact, you’re doing nothing else but regurgitate words that are already written. You think you understand them, but in fact, you’re probably not.

A truly intelligent person can put complex ideas into simple words. Now, that might sound rather challenging for experts. They’re doing nothing else but shoot around with technical vocabulary. Once you can put your academic research into a clearer language you demonstrate that you’ve understood the academic research of someone else. If you can understand it, you can teach it to other people.

Academic research is meant to teach

As an academic researcher, you have the drive to learn more about various issues. At the same time, you’d like to make your findings available for other people to read. Whatever you find out during your academic research can help someone else along. But that person can only tackle issues with your findings if he understands what you are teaching with your research.

Let’s take a step back to university. You’ve chosen a subject to want to study to become active in that area. Whether you study medicine to help people with health issues or physics to build better cars. Any subject matter you come across is meant to teach you in this area. However, you’ll eventually graduate without knowing that much more. At least that’d be the case if all the academic research you’ve come across isn’t easy to understand. That’s certainly not the goal of academic research. And how are you supposed to contribute to academic research if you don’t understand what you’re writing?

Let’s move to plain language

There have been various efforts in the past years to trigger a change in academic writing. For example, the Center for Plain Language in D.C. actually managed to introduce the Plain Writing Act in 2010. Unfortunately, only very few people know this bill exists. Its aim is to make sure that government texts are written in concise language. Additionally, academics like the cognitive scientist Pinker, have already added to the discussion. He, like others, endorses the idea of a simpler language to be used in academic research.

Unfortunately, professors make their own rules and have been forced into the complex academic writing style for years. A change certainly is possible and everyone would benefit. If you’d like to make your academic research available to a broader audience, you could get in touch with an editor. There are specialized editors to make academic writing more palatable. If you’re using an academic research platform, like Flowcite, you could easily add such an editor to your project. In real-time, the editor can work on the text. Alternatively, add some friends to your project. Let them leave comments and highlight text that’s hard for them to understand. A change in academic writing and research can only happen if you are part of the change. 

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