Proof at last? Academic writing needs to be clear too

Libby Ross | June 2, 2022

Looking over a young woman’s shoulder as she reads an academic journal. She sits next to a window in a high-rise building looking over the city

Our study suggests clear writing improves how academics perceive your paper, increasing your chances of publication and going to conference. Image by Palliser Photography / Excio licence

Write teamed up with Jan Feld, a senior lecturer in economics, to find out if writing quality matters to academics. And our study suggests it does! Clear writing improves how academics perceive your paper, and increases your chances of publication and going to conference.

Jan designed the experiment and we supported him with our expertise as editors and clear communicators. Through Jan’s discipline of economics, we tested whether writing quality matters to the gatekeepers of the research world. No other study appears to test the impact of writing quality in the same way.

We edited 30 papers written by PhD students in economics, making the language clearer and more concise without changing the content. Then we surveyed writing experts (such as editors and copywriters) to test whether our editing had improved the writing. We also surveyed academic economists from different universities to see if the editing changed how they perceived each paper. Our study had approval from the Human Ethics Committee at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington.

Close-up of a leafy plant sprouting from soil inside a lightbulb. The lightbulb lies on rocky ground as though abandoned

We edited the text so the ideas in each paper could shine clear and bright. Image by Singkam / Pexels licence

We changed the words in each paper, not the ideas

As we’re not economists, we could confine our editing to the writing without changing other aspects of the papers or the ideas they contained.

Three of our consultants edited 30 papers from PhD students in economics. The students could keep the edited papers in exchange for their help.

We worked with the students to ensure we only changed the words and not the meaning. We spent about 6 hours editing each paper, focusing mostly on the Abstract and Introduction (with minimal changes to other sections).

The most frequent edits we made

When editing the papers, we broadly followed a set of editing guidelines that we had designed with Jan. The changes we made the most often included:

Experts reviewed the papers

We then asked 18 writing experts and 30 academic economists to evaluate 10 papers each. Each expert saw the original version of 5 papers, and the edited version of 5 other papers. No expert saw both versions of the same paper. And the experts didn’t know that some of the papers were edited.

Each expert spent about 5 minutes on each paper — mimicking the quick review process journal editors use when deciding whether to accept a paper for a conference or whether to send a paper out for review.

And the experts confirmed that writing matters

The writing experts confirmed that the edited versions were better overall. They also evaluated the edited papers as:

The academic economists also evaluated the edited versions more positively. They judged the papers as:

A person dressed in business clothes sits on a bench, their finger pointing to text in the bound article on their lap

The quality of your ideas is still important for getting published, but so is the way you communicate them. Image by Ono Kosuki / Pexels licence

So if writing matters, who gets published?

The quality of your ideas and research is still important — but our results show you need to communicate those ideas clearly to have an impact.

English is the main publication language for academic journals, especially in sciences like economics. The results of our study have implications for researchers who are non-native speakers of English. Researchers from non English-speaking countries may face additional language barriers in publishing their research.

We think PhD students are sometimes disadvantaged because they haven’t learned to write well enough to have a paper accepted for publication. In our experiment, we focused on editing the Abstracts and Introductions of the papers. Imagine the difference if we had edited the entire papers!

And many students leave university not knowing how to write clearly and concisely, even if English is their first language. At Write we often work with new graduates who have started their first job full of enthusiasm, only to discover that academic writing isn’t what’s needed in the business or government world.

Writing matters — in all areas of life

Although we don’t often work as consultants inside the academic world, we welcomed this opportunity to make a small but important discovery about how academics value clear writing.

Publishing journal articles is a huge part of sharing new information and building an academic reputation. We know that clear writing matters to most readers — and our experiment shows that it matters in the academic world too.

We thank Jan for inviting us to work with him in an area that has surprisingly little evidence. We hope this work contributes to a shift in attitudes to what constitutes ‘good’ in academic writing.

Watch out for our paper, coming soon!

We’re submitting our paper to reputable economics journals and hope to publish it soon. For now, we’ve finalised the results of our study and published a brief summary that you can read in this brief Twitter thread.

We give a big thank you to all the PhD students, writing experts, and economists who participated in the experiment. We also thank Dr Sam Lentle-Keenan for her help on this project while she was at Write. Finally, we thank our chief executive, Lynda Harris, for supporting our involvement in the project as part of Write’s long-time support of the global plain language movement.

More about the authors

Jan Feld is an economist and senior lecturer at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington. You can view his other work on his Twitter account:

Corinna Lines and Libby Ross are Write consultants who specialise in helping organisations make their written communication clear and concise.

See other work and research we’ve done

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