else being equal, you would expect short and simple papers to get a
wider readership. Long sentences, complicated terms, should all
discourage readers from reading further.
So you would think that
researchers and academics would outcompete each other, producing ever
more accessible papers… to maximize the impact of their work.
Sadly, the incentives do not work in this manner:
most important step for many researchers is to get the paper published
in a “prestigious” venue. They could not care less if only ten
researchers ever manage to decipher half their manuscript… as long as it
gets published somewhere prestigious.You would think that the referees would recommend well written manuscripts… and everything else being equal, they will…
Except that pompous language exists for a reason: it is meant to impress the reader.
you take a result and show that, ultimately, you can make it trivial…
the referee might say “it is nice, but the problem was clearly not very
So, at least in Computer Science, research papers often end
up filled with complicated details. Very few of them are distilled to
the essential parts.
Authors respond to incentives: it is more important to impress the referee than to write well.
second most important step for researchers is to get cited. You would
think that well written work would get more citations… And there must be
an effect: if people cannot quickly decipher what your work is about,
they are less likely to cite you.However, people generally do not read the work they cite. They may scan the abstract, the conclusion… but rarely all of it.
So papers containing a wide range of results, or more impressive-sounding claims, are probably more likely to be cited.
way out of this trap is to measure influence instead of citations. That
is, you can reliably identify the references that are essential to
follow-up work (see Zhu et al, 2015). Sadly, it requires a bit more work than merely counting citations.
have reviewed the abstracts (and not the whole papers) of several
research articles. Though they do not express it in this manner, we
could say that the quality of the writing has little to do with impact:
differing from the average paper by more than one standard deviation on a
desirable feature may coincide with a variation of the number of
citations of about 5%. Their paper also fails to address the fact that
citation counts have high statistical dispersion: most papers get few
citations where a few get many. So any statistical analysis must be done
with extra care: a few individual articles can account for much of the
average. You need to take their results with a grain of salt. It worse
than it sounds because, your goal as a researcher, is not increase the
citations that one of your paper received from 5 to 6 (a 20% gain!)…
whether it is 5 or 6, it is still inconsequential… your goal is to have
about 100 citations or more for your paper… and whether you hit 80, 100,
or 120 citations is irrelevant.
Nevertheless, their work shows
that good writing can often coincide with fewer citations… Indeed, they
found that long abstracts made of long sentences containing many adverbs
and complicated or superlative words tends to coincide with more
citations. They found that authors who stress the novelty of their
results tend coincide with the most cited authors.
Thus, at least
according to Weinberger et al. (2015), improving your writing can have a
small negative effect. This should come as no surprise to those who
have long observed that academic writing in unnecessarily dense. Authors
write this way because it gets the job done.
Weinberger et al. explain their result as follows…
DespiteSearch engines encourage us to write poorly?
the fact that anybody in their right mind would prefer to read short,
simple, and well-written prose with few abstruse terms, when building an
argument and writing a paper, the limiting step is the ability to find
the right article. For this, scientists rely heavily on search
techniques, especially search engines, where longer and more specific
abstracts are favored. Longer, more detailed, prolix prose is simply
more available for search. This likely explains our results, and
suggests the new landscape of linguistic fitness in 21st century
Do search engines favour results with long sentences and superlative
words? I think not. In any case, to make this demonstration, the authors
should repeat their survey with older papers, prior to the emergence of
powerful academic search engines.
A much more likely phenomenon,
in my opinion, is that when looking to quickly cite a reference, one
seeks impressive-sounding papers.
I used a similar trick in high
school. I wanted to stand apart and impress my teachers, so I would
intentionally use a very rich vocabulary. I think it worked.
what should you do? If your goal is to be widely read, you should still
write short sentences using simple words. If your goal is to impress
strangers who will probably never read you, use long and impressive
I think that Weinberger et al. made their preference
clear: ironically maybe, their paper is short, to the point and well
- Identifying influential citations: it works live today!
- Not all citations are equal: identifying key citations…
- Predicting your future performance
Do better written papers get more citations? – Daniel Lemire's blog