Why Is Academic Writing Terrible?
Many have noticed how bad most academic writing is. (See Steven Pinker’s famous essay on why it stinks: https://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/why_academics_stink_at_writing.pdf.) If you’re ever having trouble sleeping and you don’t have any sleeping pills, you can always pick up an academic journal. It works even if you love the subject that the journal is in.
On the face of it, this is odd. Academic style isn’t fun to read, and it isn’t fun to write. So who is making us do this?
There is certainly no one else making us do it. It’s not as if we have all these clients who are demanding thousands of tedious discussions of irrelevant details every year, lest we lose their business. It’s not as if government regulations require a minimum of three pointless digressions about other people’s views before one states one’s own view. We’re doing it to ourselves. Why?
I think it’s a sort of spontaneous order, a product of human action but not of human design. There are certain other features of the academic system that we have intentionally created, and they have awful writing as an unintended side effect.
In the world of academic publishing, there are three big demands that your work has to satisfy: (1) be tied to the literature, (2) be new, (3) be well-defended. The way these standards are enforced is through peer review – other professors read your paper and decide whether it has those traits. These all seem like perfectly reasonable requirements for publication, yet as applied, they lead to a boring literature that no one outside the field wants to read, and people in the field only read because they have to read it in order to publish their own boring articles.
(1) The Need to Address the Literature
It seems reasonable that if you’re going to publish an article on some topic, you should have read the existing literature on that topic. Otherwise, you probably don’t know enough for it to be worth our time to listen to you. To push human knowledge forward, you have to first familiarize yourself with the existing knowledge on your topic.
This perfectly reasonable requirement, as it is applied by referees, has the following consequences:
a. Less Creativity
You have to realize, first of all, that there is an enormous amount of existing literature. Just looking at the discipline of philosophy, PhilPapers.org (which indexes most English-language philosophy papers and books) presently has 2.5 million entries, and they get hundreds of new ones every week. There are ways of cutting down on how many things you have to read (more below), but you have to spend a lot of time reading “the literature” before you get to write down your own thoughts. And what that does, for most people, is that it stops you from thinking independently. It pushes out whatever your own natural reactions to the issue would be, and fills your head with thoughts about all the things other people have said. You follow whatever path has been worn into the ground by the existing literature, and just try to take the next little step along that path.
b. Literature Discussion
The other effect is that academic articles frequently discuss each other – you write about what some other article said about a third article, etc. You do that partly because those are the sort of thoughts that your mind is filled with after spending weeks reading other people’s papers, and also partly because you need to prove to the referees that you know the literature.
c. Historical Myopia
You also don’t pay attention to older work. There are so many things written on most topics that you just do not have time to look at anything more than 20 years old, unless it’s super-famous. The consequence is that people are stuck in a very recent perspective. We don’t have the perspectives of 50 years ago to inform our thoughts, let alone other cultures. Almost every article from 50 years ago is today completely forgotten – they have to be, because the amount of stuff that has been written exceeds the capacity of the human brain to attend to.
Note, of course, that this means that the things we’re writing now will be completely forgotten in 50 years – probably much less. Indeed, many articles are forgotten as soon as they appear. According to this article in Nature -- https://www.nature.com/news/the-top-100-papers-1.16224 -- 75% of academic articles are cited fewer than 10 times; 44% (about 25 million as of this writing) have never been cited at all. The idea that all these articles are helping to make intellectual progress is a fantasy.
Third, you’re practically forced to take on incredibly tiny, hyper-specialized questions, because it is impossible to read the literature on a big question. If you’re thinking of writing on free will, for example, you’re going to find thousands of articles and books on that. So you pick something smaller – say, whether free will is compatible with determinism. But guess what? There are still hundreds of things to read on that. That’s still too many for a non-robot mind to absorb. So you have to take some small aspect of the compatibility question.
(2) The Demand for Newness
This demand, again, seems reasonable on its face: what’s the use of having people constantly reinventing the wheel? If someone is going to publish a new article, surely the article should say something that hasn’t been said before. Surely that is required, in fact, to keep our journals interesting and worth reading. Right?
The problem is that almost every idea that is actually worth stating has in fact already been stated, particularly if you’re talking about issues that have been discussed for centuries. If you’ve already got two and a half million papers and books in your discipline, how many startlingly new, interesting, and good ideas can you expect to find every year?
Yet we still have hundreds of journals that need to keep putting out issues, and thousands of professors who need to publish things in order to get tenure. So how does this work? How are people finding all these “new” ideas to publish?
Well, there are two main strategies, which lead to two problems found in academic philosophy writing:
You could come up with an idea that is so incredibly counter-intuitive that no one else has tried to defend it, or at least, not recently enough for the referees to know about it. Of course, these ideas are virtually guaranteed to be false.
It is actually quite hard to come up with such ideas, though, especially in philosophy and especially if you also need to come up with some clever arguments for them. Philosophers have already advanced almost all the counter-intuitive theses that one can think of. So the usual route we take is the next one . . .
You could address a question that is so specific, and so tied to the exact course of the recent literature, that no one has ever addressed that question in the way you plan to do, out of all the millions of other papers and books out there. Of course, that also pretty much means that no one will care about your question either.
The “newness” requirement also generates a good amount of boring meta-discourse, in which the author explicitly talks about how his work relates to the literature – how Author’s view differs in some tiny way from the seemingly similar views defended by X, Y, and Z, etc. You have to put this sort of thing in, even though no reader cares and it has no philosophical import, in order to prevent referees from rejecting your paper for insufficient newness.
Anecdote: My book, The Problem of Political Authority, was rejected by many publishers. Most did not even send it out for review, but of the few referee reports, one thought that the book was not “new” enough. The ref thought that the arguments in part 1 were too similar to those of A. John Simmons in Moral Principles and Political Obligations. So the publisher rejected the manuscript. It’s safe to say that that was an error.
At the time, I thought about trying to catalog the differences between my arguments and Simmons’. But I did not do that (so I still don’t know how different they are), because I just thought that was a total waste of time. No reader has ever wanted that information, and no one has ever regretted buying my book because it was too similar to Simmons. As a philosopher, I should be spending my time thinking about what is true, not thinking about how to distinguish myself from someone else.
(3) The Need to Be Well-Defended
Last but not least, the academic gatekeepers will make some kind of judgement about how well argued your paper is. Surely some such judgment is necessary – we can’t just go around publishing terrible arguments, can we? What good would that be?
Unfortunately, one of the open secrets of academic philosophy that there actually is no agreement on what is a good argument – different professional philosophers frequently make drastically different judgments about the quality of an argument or how “well defended” a thesis is. Philosophers also tend to be hyper-critical – they find “flaws” in virtually every argument, but different philosophers will find different alleged flaws. (If philosophers were in charge, there would be no modern science, because we’d keep arguing about each scientific theory forever.) Our judgements about what is a good argument are also heavily influenced by what we initially take to be the correct view on the question that the argument concerns. E.g., if one believes in socialism at the start, one is going to have a hard time evaluating as “good” any argument for capitalism.
So there you are, writing a paper, which you hope to publish, and you know that it has to get past two of these hyper-critical and likely biased people. Any bold claims that you make are most likely going to be rejected by the referees. At a minimum, they will state objections to them. If the referee states too many objections, then the journal editor will probably decide to reject the paper. The way to avoid having people object to your ideas is to remove everything interesting from the paper. If possible, just make a small technical point that one can’t disagree with. This is why philosophers are much more interesting when they talk informally than when they write for publication.
Anyway, if your paper isn’t rejected outright, you’ll almost certainly have to revise the paper to take account of the comments and objections of the referees. This sounds like an obviously desirable procedure. In fact, it is probably going to make your paper worse.
First, the referee will probably mention other ideas and arguments in the literature that you didn’t address, simply because the referee happens to know about these things and he feels like he’s supposed to mention stuff he knows about that relates to the topic of the paper. You’ll then have to add in text, at least footnotes, discussing these other things. This will create annoying digressions away from your main line of argument and into things that almost none of your readers care about. (People don’t read a paper to hear about the literature – at least, not if they’re reading for pleasure. They read to hear about the issue.)
Second, you’re probably going to make your claims weaker and more complicated, adding in various qualifications and sub-qualifications, in order to avoid the referees’ objections. That’s going to make it much less interesting.
Third, you’re probably going to be forced to discuss idiosyncratic misunderstandings and objections by one or two specific referees. Referees frequently raise objections based on controversial views that they personally happen to hold. They often simply have stupid objections that no one else would raise. And they sometimes misunderstand your paper in ways that would not tempt other readers. (Other readers might also have stupid objections and misunderstandings, but probably not the same ones, so there’s no point in discussing these specific ones.)
Anecdote: One referee rejected a paper on jury nullification because the paper did not contain sufficient argumentation to show that voting to convict a defendant causes the defendant to be punished. I have no idea why the referee thought that conviction might not cause punishment; he didn’t say. But no one else has ever raised that objection.
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So putting this all together, what we get is discussions of niggling details, which make no sense and have no interest to you if you haven’t read the specific academic literature from the last 10 years; discussions focused on the literature rather than the issues, filled with qualifications and digressions into potential misunderstandings and errors that you probably would never have been tempted toward in the first place – and all to get to some anodyne, highly qualified claims about incredibly circumscribed questions. That’s the sort of paper that can get past the hurdles placed by academic referees.