Why Is Academic Language Obfuscated?

A nice article on software patents by Joel Spolsky has an intriguing paragraph that may shed light on a little-noticed problem with the peer review system:

The first technique is to try to make the language of the patent as confusing and obfuscated as possible. That actually makes it harder for a patent examiner to identify prior art or evaluate if the invention is obvious.

For similar reasons, it is in the best interests of the researcher to make their peer reviewed article as incomprehensible as possible.

When confronted with closely reasoned and heavily mathematical text, the reviewer is presumed to have been chosen to be sufficiently familiar with the field as to be able to follow the reasoning without difficulty.

But consider the position of the reviewer who does not understand the argument in the paper under review. While there are degrees and shades here, fundamentally the reviewer is choosing between two poles: 1) I am a fraud, as this material is clearly on my territory and I don’t understand it 2) I can’t understand this because it is completely incoherent gobbledy-gook done so effectively that I can’t immediately see what is happening here. The reviewer could simply refuse to review the paper “on reviewing the paper I find I am not qualified to give an opinion” which solves the reviewer’s problem but not the editor’s. The editor has to find three reviewers to complete the process. In any case this paper is likely to sit on the reviewer’s desk for a considerable time; and then the reviewer will feel pressure to complete the forms and get the task dispatched with.

And as with the less qualified person on your PhD committee, what they will go with is likely to be “I don’t see anything wrong with the parts I am in a position to judge” and give a pass. On the other hand, if a paper has plain, simple unobfuscated language and a frank assessment of its own weaknesses, then the overwhelmed reviewer is in a position to give it a good, solid bikeshedding without much effort. Since career output is measured by publication quantity first and quality only second (indirectly via citation count), clarity and completeness are not encouraged.

I lack for a proper adjective to characterize the resulting trends in the literature, but “obfuscated” will do for an understatement.

I’m not trying to say that there aren’t fundamental reasons that many papers are only accessible to peers; good science really is deep, and it’s ludicrous to propose that everything be accessible to a lay audience – that would make most genuinely important papers thousands of pages long. But that just provides cover for the more pernicious phenomenon that I am suggesting is also at work. Papers should be as readable as possible to their intended audience on principle; in practice they aren’t.

Comments:

  1. Not sure. If I assume to be of average intelligence and I do not understand the manuscript, I find it natural to assume that many readers will no understand it. Thus I would request major revisions to make such a manuscript clearer.

    Furthermore, I would assume that a scientist is in science because he wants to contribute something to our understanding of the world outside. Deliberately writing obfuscated articles does not bring that goal much closer.

    How about the hypothesis that the problem lies in that scientific articles are about the edge of what we understand and the scientists is feeling his way in the dark. If you do not understand the problem that well yet, it is also hard to write clear prose.

    Furthermore, scientific articles need to be right, every single line. This makes it very different from journalistic prose. In journalistic articles (on science) there are almost always errors. In the best case not too consequential error and the main story is still okay. Sometimes these errors are even on purpose because they make the story easier to read. I once attended a journal to informed a newspaper of (?) -ed an error and the answer was that he knew, but doing it right would require presenting much additional information, which would hurt the line of the story.

  2. "For similar reasons, it is in the best interests of the researcher to make their peer reviewed article as incomprehensible as possible."

    I'm not sure the comparison to patents works - I don't think academics would do this as consciously as you seem to be suggesting. The problem is real enough but its source is a little different depending on the discipline. Quantity over quality, though, yes: the massive pressure to publish at any cost - preferably now before finishing one's PhD if one wants to stand a chance of securing postdocs - is most to blame for the drop in writing clarity.

    A conversation this week with a colleague: we were talking about the kinds of heavy-tome edited texts produced by the major journal publishers - the ones that can cost hundreds and are meant to be at the cutting edge of their field, the place where in an ideal world you'd turn to understand where it's currently at (that's certainly how they're marketed). They're often (mostly?) utter bilge - a hodge-podge of working papers and quickly rushed out bits of writing that completely fail to actually communicate where the field is or - as my colleague was lamenting - provide a way into the particular approach or method (for people from the field or a related one who should be equipped to follow clear overviews).

    Just confirming what you said: quantity over quality. But I don't think it's anyone trying to throw flak behind them as they grow their academic CVS. It's just massive time pressure and warped academic metrics. Question is, how to change it?

  3. Absolutely, there are good reasons for science to tend to be obscure (in a similar way that there are good reasons for legal agreements to tend to be obscure).

    However, the motivational reinforcement to resist this tendency (in both cases) is sadly limited. So the documents tend to be more obscure than is in fact necessary.

    As for "scientific articles need to be right, every single line", here we are at odds in practice, though I agree that what you describe is the ideal.

    I do not believe that this level of review is common. I do not believe that most reviewers, at least in expansive fields like climate, have the time and energy to review run of the mill papers in mathematical detail. And the worse the mathematics, the harder the problem is. It is easy to approve (or disapprove) of mathematical arguments you understand. But if as a reviewer you fail to understand them, the problem could be that the math is nonsensical, or that you don't understand it.

    It's even worse if a computation is involved. How many reviewers download and install the relevant computation, especially if it is a large and complex one requiring a specialized platform?

  4. Throwing flak deliberately? Not commonly.

    But getting caught out more often on simple statements than over-elaborated obscure ones? Thereby having obfuscation reinforced? Sure. Most people under pressure don't spend a whole lot of time and energy on Feynman's dictum that the easiest person to fool is yourself.

  5. I agree that there is not much external pressure on writing clear prose. There is the intrinsic motivation of wanting to contribute to understanding and there is a long term extrinsic motivation in nurturing your reputation. If you are known for obfuscated prose, people will avoid reading your articles and you have less influence on your field.

    And the time pressure likely does not make it better. Sometimes it would be good to let an article rest and try a new draft after some weeks.

    P.S Thanks for the above edit.

  6. Gilbert and Sullivan says it with music:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcx3ymUDNXU

    "If that young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
    Why, what a very singularly deep young man
    This deep young man must be"

  7. Pingback: Tornado Quest Gee-O-Science Links for April 8 – 15, 2014 | Welcome To Tornado Quest


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