Is academia facing a readability crisis?

I love reading scientific articles. One of the best parts of my job is reading about new discoveries and elegant studies. But despite my excitement over new knowledge, I often struggle to get through an entire article. I often have to read parts several times to grasp what the authors are trying to say, and I struggle to stay focused.

I think this is a common problem. Readers like me may think that they are not smart enough to quickly grasp the minds of brilliant scientists. But there’s nothing wrong with readers’ intelligence; scientific articles are becoming harder to read.

Last year, four researchers from Karolinska Institutet analyzed the readability of scientific texts from 1881 until 2015. They found that the readability of scientific abstracts and articles has been steadily decreasing. The results seemed to resonate with a lot of people’s experiences as it got a lot of attention (try googling “Karolinska” and “readability”).

Now the dust is settled, but let’s keep the discussion going. Fixing academia’s readability problem is going to be a long haul.

So how did they measure readability?

The Karolinska researchers used the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) and the New Dale-Chall Readability Formula (NDC). The FRE score uses the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence to calculate readability. The higher the FRE score, the easier the text is to read. The NDC score uses average sentence length and the percentage of difficult words to calculate readability. A difficult word is defined as a word that’s not in the NDC common word lists which contains 2,949 words. The lower the NDC score, the easier the text is to read.

Both the FRE and the NDC scores showed that the readability of scientific abstracts has been steadily declining. So what does this mean? It means that we are using longer words, longer sentences, and more words that are not considered common, also known as jargon. All of this makes texts harder to read.

Why is this happening?

I don’t have a definite answer, but I can guess. I think part of the problem is that many believe that academic writing has to have a certain tone to it. Which often means writing in passive voice (e.g. “it was found” instead of “we found”). This type of writing often includes many redundant words and phrases (interestingly, importantly, it has been shown that, it is known that), and lots of jargon. Also, you will often find long complex parenthetical sentences, which should have been split into two or more sentences.

Here are a few rules of thumb to fix these problems. First, write mostly in the active voice, especially when you are writing about your research. If you write about both others and your findings in the passive voice, it’s hard for the reader to distinguish between the two. Second, write mostly in short sentences, and add the occasional long sentence for variety. Third, if you have a choice between a short and a long word, choose the short word. And finally, think hard about the jargon you use. Some are necessary, but the more jargon, the more you are confining your paper to a narrow field.

But there are more problems with scientific writing than jargon, long words, and long sentences. To write readable text, you must know how to make sentences and paragraphs flow. To achieve this, you must know how to construct a readable sentence and a readable paragraph.

Let’s look at an example sentence from my PhD thesis:

Knockout of AQP1, which is highly expressed in the choroid plexus epithelial cells and has limited expression in the rest of the brain, results in a 35% reduction of the CSF production rate and an 80% reduction of the water permeability of the choroid plexuses.

There are many things wrong with this sentence:

  1. It’s too long (45 words).
  2. The noun (AQP1) and the verb (results) are separated by a parenthetical sentence.
  3. The word reduction is repeated, and it would read better as a verb.

Here’s a better version:

Knockout of AQP1 reduces the CSF production rate by 35% and the water permeability of the choroid plexuses by 80%. AQP1 is highly expressed in the choroid plexus epithelial cells and has limited expression in the rest of the brain.

This is what I fixed:

  1. I changed “results in a X reduction in” to “reduces”, and the noun reduction became the verb reduces.
  2. I moved the verb (reduces) next to its noun (AQP1).
  3. I eliminated repetition of “reduction”.
  4. I split the sentence into two sentences of 20 words each

Maybe you can come up with a better fix?

I think the major root of the problem of declining readability is a lack of formal training in writing techniques. First, let’s accept that writing is hard and that writing about complex subjects in a clear and concise manner is even harder. Next, let’s accept that we should strive to make our texts as readable as we possibly can without losing meaning.

When we have agreed on this these factors, all there’s left is learning and practicing the techniques for writing clearly. These techniques are simple and especially useful in scientific writing. Next step is getting courses and workshops available to researchers at all institutions.

Why bother becoming a good writer? Why not just emulate the literature that is out there?

Well, a well-written paper is probably more likely to be accepted, a well-written grant proposal is more likely to be granted, and writing is a transferable and valuable skill that you can take with you anywhere.

Karolinska Institutet does have writing workshops. Through Career Service, Angelika Hofmann has given several grant writing workshops (and I hope she keeps coming). If you get the chance, attend her workshop. In addition to grant writing skills, she will teach you general writing techniques.

And recently, Terese Bergfors held a workshop in advanced academic writing for PhD students (which I managed to attend even though I’m a Postdoc). I also highly recommend Terese’s workshop. I will write more about why I attended her workshop and what I learned there in a later joint post. We were two bloggers on the course, so you will get to hear the story from two perspectives.

Stay tuned for more writing about writing!


One thought on “Is academia facing a readability crisis?

  1. Well documented. I also participated in Terese Workshop and highly recommend it. Thanks for the head of Doctoral eduction of CMB department, Matt Nikola who organised it.i

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