Accessible writing

Today I read a spirited exchange between Greg Thompson and Greg Ashman, sparked by Thompson’s statement:

A note on this: there seems to be a popular view expressed on social media that dense and complex writing necessarily indicates that the work is not worthwhile. This is nonsense, I am in awe of my science and mathematics friends for the complexity of the work that they do and for the years of toil that enable them to do this complex work. I expect to have to study hard to be able to understand this, and I don’t blame them when it takes a long time for me to understand this. Expecting philosophy to be different seems stupid to me.

Without going into too much detail, Ashman challenged Thompson over this statement claiming clear and accessible writing is a social responsibility. You can read the four blog exchange for yourself, but I would like to throw a few pebbles in the pond on the point of the accessibility of academic writing.

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I agree with both Gregs but with a few differences.

Dense and complex writing is important sociology

As Thompson alludes, dense and complex writing is a part of dense and complex theory. Society is not shallow nor is it simple. Society is messy and difficult (if not impossible) to define. It is not going to be understood in a sound bite, 140 characters or an 800 word blog. In fact, only reading sociology as sound bites can lead to fractured thinking, or thinking that takes only the popular parts of an idea, without reference to the whole. Fractured thinking can be dangerous (I’m not going to get into the anti-vax debate right here, but it’s an example).

The difficulty in accessing complex ideas is the search for the key. That takes work. You can have a read of my search for the key to understanding posthumanism here. Once you have the key, the theory is unlocked and the dense complexity becomes easier to access.

Durkheim, Weber and Marx are very difficult to access but are the most influential sociological thinkers. You could probably add Derrida and Barad to that list and they are not easy either. All of them have been criticised for their dense complexity, but people stuck with them and they have changed the way people think about the complex issues. Sticking it out can be very rewarding and can help your own work become more nuanced and thoughtful.

However, BAD writing is a problem

I do agree with Ashman that there is sometimes a feeling like the bigger the words, the more likely the possibility of publication. This is what Pinker calls the destructive potential of the thesaurus. It’s better to use a dictionary and say exactly what you mean. A good referee should prefer clarity over verbosity.

Thompson picks up on a study Ashman references as an example of bad research published in a non-peer reviewed journal. Thompson says it never should have been published. I have read numerous such studies and I hold the referees and editors responsible for this.

Academic writing is a skill that can only be acquired by doing it, submitting to journals, responding to referee statements and recommendations and having another go. Again I am not going to get into a discussion about the professionalism of referees because I know from experience they can be unfairly rough. But I was in the publishing game long before I entered academia and the critical dialogue between the writer and the editor is one of the best things that has ever happened to my writing. I have cried and thrown things but I have also improved.

I often wonder if the cacophony of online journals in order to respond to the  publish or perish pressures is the reason there is a growing amount of bad academic writing out there.

The social responsibility of accessible academic writing belongs in the Open Access debate

Rather than  challenging academics as tax payer funded researchers with the responsibility of communicating with the lay public, challenge the toll access journals to stop with their ridiculous prices. They are the institutions keeping the rigorous academic work unavailable to the masses. Tax argument aside, the fragmentary result of keeping some research behind locked gates and other research freely available is a social problem that needs concerted attention. Certain responses to autism and vaccination linkage claims might not get so far.

My two cents

If there is any attack on dense and complex academic writing to be considered, I would ally myself with that made by post structural feminists and critical race theorists. The current genre preferenced (and in most cases only form accepted) is the scientific method paper. Since the inception of qualitative research, social scientists have been trying to justify that their work is as important as positivist scientific work by using the positivist scientific tools, including the genre. But a quantitative scientific paper can be basically understood with a scan because of the prolific use of statistics/tables/graphs/etc. Qualitative work, on the other hand, needs to be READ from cover to cover for the meaning to be understood. This is why it is vital that the writing is good. I am not talking about the grammar hunt for dangling participles; I am talking about rigorous, thoughtful, interesting and passionate writing.

Pablo_Picasso,_1910,_Woman_with_Mustard_Pot_(La_Femme_au_pot_de_moutarde),_oil_on_canvas,_73_x_60_cm,_Gemeentemuseum,_The_Hague._Exhibited_at_the_Armory_Show,_New_York,_Chicago,_Boston_1913

Pablo Picasso, 1910, Woman with Mustard Pot (La Femme au pot de moutarde), oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm (28 3/4 x 23 5/8 in), Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

Current academic writing is dominated by a genre formulated by white men during the Enlightenment. If you are going to rail against academic writing it is first important to know how to do it well, then, as all the great modern artists have taught us, break the rules with purpose. Feminist writers such as Laurel Richardson have been advocating for other genres to help better assemble an understanding of their data. Have a read of Fields of Play if this interests you.

In short, write well, write with passion and write as activism.

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