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Academic papers are needlessly complex

By Scott Strasser. January 26, 2016 —

As a communications studies major, I’ve always found it frustrating how wordy and convoluted many of my course readings are. Week after week, I find myself slogging through 30-page essays with 60-word sentences and an idea that could easily be communicated in half the space. It feels like I’m forced to look up what exactly words like egregious, obfuscate and hitherto mean every fifth sentence. Why do academics feel the need to prove how smart they are with long-winded explanations for their ideas?

Using complicated prose is traditional in academic writing. The older your course’s readings are, the harder they’re going to be to understand. But even recent works tend to follow this unnecessary practice. Academics seem to enjoy taking you on the scenic route to get to whatever their point is. And when students read essays like these, they feel obligated to try and do the same.

For example, here’s an excerpt from Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding and decoding that I read for my COMS 475 class on pop culture studies: “The ‘object’ of these practices is meanings and messages in the form of sign-vehicles of a specific kind organized, like any form of communication or language, through the operation of codes within the syntagmatic chain of a discourse.”

Almost every sentence in the whole damn essay is like that. And this theory isn’t particularly difficult. Hall is arguing that the creator of a media message always has a preferred way he or she would like that message to be interpreted. Sometimes the message recipient doesn’t accept that interpretation, so they form their own reference code. Simple. But by page 30 of this essay, it might as well be written in Russian. 

Academics should strive to make their ideas as accessible as possible. Writing impenetrable prose just makes it harder for readers to understand what they’re trying to say.

Academics convince themselves their ideas are too complex for non-scholars to understand, but that’s rarely the case. TED Talks are a great example of a medium that communicates complex ideas in a simple, clear manner. There’s no reason why written explanations can’t also be simplified.

When I’m full, I don’t say that gastronomical satiety admonishes me that I have reached the ultimate state of deglutition consistent with dietetic integrity. I just say that I’m full. I don’t know why academics can’t do the same.


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