110

I will begin with a disclaimer, I am not an English native speaker, but I can speak fluent English and understand English in almost all research papers I read.

However, occasionally I come across some papers published in peer reviewed journals with ridiculously complicated sentence structure using relic non-technical vocabulary that no one in the past century has heard of!

Here is one of my favorites:

The algorithm fathoms in a synergetic manner globally, and an antagonistic depth quest locally.

Whatever that means!

Don't get me wrong, the content of such papers can sometimes be informative, but I can't help but get frustrated over such over complication in language! I can spend days trying to decipher what the author was trying to convey and I occasionally give up on the entire paper.

So my question is, why do authors feel the need to hide their amazing ideas/contributions behind such language barrier? Would it hurt to write the paper in a simple fashion such that any reader with the required technical background can understand it?

auth'rs, wherefore thee doth this?

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    @Coconut are you sure the paper was not computer generated, or produced in English using Google translate? It is difficult even for native English speaker to write clearly in English, so the challenge can be very real for non-native speakers. – user67075 Feb 19 '17 at 7:21
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    @Coconut LOL. Can you share your other favorites please? – Dan Romik Feb 19 '17 at 8:30
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    Thee is singular and in tho objective case. – Carsten S Feb 19 '17 at 13:41
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    Re "...relic non-technical vocabulary...": Perhaps the problem here is that the people who write papers tend to be intelligent and well-educated people who are, presumably, writing for other intelligent and well-educated people, not the least common denominator of popular culture. Such language is perhaps a bit elitist, but hardly a relic. – jamesqf Feb 19 '17 at 18:22
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    Someone has tried to prove that the selection process of that journal is broken by sending gibberish, and being successfully published. This has happened multiple times. – jcaron Feb 20 '17 at 1:13

14 Answers 14

95

I've run into variations of this a lot in economics, and have a few observations.

  • Being good at research in your field is an entirely separate skill from being able to communicate ideas clearly. Two Nobel laureates really embody the extremes here for me, both with brilliant research. One the one side is Paul Krugman, who, regardless of what you think of his public persona, is an excellent writer. His skill comes across even in his research papers, and even in his work from the '70s. On the other hand is Amartya Sen, who it often seems to me can't express an idea clearly in one sentence if it could equally well be conveyed in fifteen. Granted, Sen wasn't born in an English speaking country, but he left for school in England in 1953, so he's hardly new at this.

  • There appears to be some institutional momentum. That is, you learn to be a researcher in your field by reading the work of past researchers. That frames your concept of what quality writing in your field looks like, which you then adopt to some degree.

  • It can be a signaling method. This is related to the previous point. For professionals used to reading papers written with heavy use of jargon or unnecessarily-big words, writing this way can make your work seem like it belongs. I often feel like the use of latin phrases really falls into this category. I myself enjoy the occasional ceteris paribus, for example, but it really isn't a very defensible practice over writing all else equal. It isn't even shorter!

I think many of us could benefit from thinking about writing more clearly, but it also makes sense to know your audience and write for them.

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    Being good at research in your field is an entirely separate skill from being able to communicate ideas clearly. -- I strongly disagree, your example notwithstanding. The ability to clearly communicate ideas is an integral component of being good at research. A few outliers are so good at some parts of the research process that they don't need to be good at other parts, but they are outliers. – JeffE Feb 19 '17 at 16:22
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    @JeffE You don't believe you can be good at research but bad at writing? That seems like an... unusual claim. – Jeff Feb 19 '17 at 16:31
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    I have many unusual opinions. Yes, I believe researchers who cannot communicate are bad researchers. The entire point of research is to get new ideas into other people's heads. – JeffE Feb 19 '17 at 16:44
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    @JeffE Lars Onsager, a Nobel prize winner who managed to solve deep and difficult problems that no one else could touch, was notoriously bad at explaining things at an accessible level. Follow my link for some anecdotes. Solving problems and "getting ideas into people's heads" are separate things, as Jeff said. – Szabolcs Feb 19 '17 at 17:21
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    @JeffE No, entire point of communication, and not research, is to get new ideas into other people's heads. High quality research might never be communicated to anyone else at all. Now, in "modern" science, failure to communicate research results would strictly limit career possibilities in academia; but it can lead to extreme success in various business endeavors for example. – user2338816 Feb 20 '17 at 6:26
46

I don't know any such papers, so I would argue they are at least not common in Computer Science (the example that you are apparently using). However, I have on occasion stumbled upon similar sentences in a slightly different context, namely when reviewing statements of purpose or job applications.

My bet is that nobody is actively "trying to hide their contributions behind language barriers", but that instead the writers are not native speakers and those sentences are an artifact of translating idioms, common sentence structures, or generally what "sounds good" from their native language into English. Common such "idiomatic translation errors" include overly long sentences for German speakers, omitting articles when they shouldn't for various Asian speakers, and using flowery and over-the-top language for Persians. I am sure there are many other examples.

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    For the specific case given by coconut in the comments I'd be pretty sure of this. – Jack Aidley Feb 19 '17 at 11:08
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    I've observed Asian speakers to also gratuitously add articles in places where they shouldn't be as an overcorrection. – March Ho Feb 19 '17 at 13:40
  • I would say that non-native language users plays some part, but I have seen this sort of language used - though not to the extreme example cited in Coconut's comment - by native speakers as well. – Chris Cirefice Feb 19 '17 at 16:10
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    “My bet is that nobody is actively ’trying to hide their contributions behind language barriers’” — I am 100% sure that this is false, and that certain researchers do in fact hide their vacuous ideas behind inflated speech. This has been observed for a long time and with particular frequency in certain disciplines (ahem positivism). In fact, there are many modern researchers do the same, and have been attacked for precisely this, although it’s become more fashionable to use (misapplied) statistics to obscure lack of substance. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 20 '17 at 22:08
  • @MarchHo: You might say they have an hypercorrection habit – Phil Miller Feb 22 '17 at 21:43
37

Some scientists do tend to overuse jargon and complicated language in their writing, for various reasons. Some might do so because they think it looks more impressive and "professional", or because they're so used to their own jargon that they don't realize others might have trouble following it, or simply because they've seen others writing in the same way and think that it's how you're supposed to write scientific articles.

However, the example sentence that you cite:

"The algorithm fathoms in a synergetic manner globally, and an antagonistic depth quest locally."

is much, much worse than just typical over-complicated academic writing. Indeed, that sentence looks as if it was deliberately obfuscated to hide its meaning, or possibly the lack of any. I can only assume that it was either:

  1. badly translated from another language, possibly by a computer;

  2. plagiarized from someone else's writing, with words randomly replaced by (near) synonyms to throw off automatic plagiarism detectors; or

  3. actually generated entirely by a computer algorithm such as SCIgen.

In any case, I have never seen such writing in any reputable academic publication, but only in pseudo-academic "fake journals" that try to pass themselves off as legitimate academic journals, but have no peer review or other quality control whatsoever, and thus will publish any nonsense sent to them as long as the author pays them for it. Basically, the point of such bogus publications is to let people pretend that they've done real scientific research and published it (and so hopefully qualify for degrees, grants and positions requiring evidence of past research), even though they lack the skills to actually do it.

If you find that a paper you're reading contains garbled writing like this, I would suggest treating it as a strong hint that the entire paper may in fact be meaningless nonsense, and not worth even trying to make sense of.

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    I believe this answer addressed one point that the others didn't: sometimes it looks like some researchers feel obligated to fill their writing with ornamental gibberish, so to praise their writing or some other sort of narcissism. – iled Feb 20 '17 at 3:49
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    Yes, that example seems to be a joke. It looks like the sort of thing SCIgen and related programs come up with. – Dronz Feb 20 '17 at 8:20
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    Great answer, and an excellent point addressing the superficial nature of such writing style, normally at home in marketing and sales. I just saw this in a car brochure: "The mature design of the exterior cocoons a human-centric cabin made for the pleasure of driver and passengers alike." Information conveyed: "Interior is user-friendly". The word choice and redundancy is there to elicit positive feelings and tries to bring the reader's attention to things beyond the actual information conveyed - marketing texts and OP's example from academia alike. – user25972 Feb 21 '17 at 9:48
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    @user25972 Actually, what I was trying to get at is that I'm pretty sure the OP's example sentence doesn't convey any meaning. It's just random word salad. It might have been a meaningful sentence before somebody mutilated it with a thesaurus, but if so, any meaning it used to have has been all but destroyed. (If I had to guess, I'd say the original meaning might have been something like "The algorithm combines a global breadth first search with a local depth first search." But that's just a wild guess.) – Ilmari Karonen Feb 21 '17 at 10:55
  • @IlmariKaronen I was mainly referring to this part: "Indeed, that sentence looks as if it was deliberately obfuscated to hide its meaning, or possibly the lack of any." It's true that I took OP's sentence at face value, assuming it was taken from a context that lent it credibility and it wasn't meant to be complete "lorem ipsum". Thank you for clarifying. – user25972 Feb 21 '17 at 13:24
18

Let me mention some points from two articles on this topic, with a request for more such sources:


In the first article, Pinker considers three explanations commonly given, and gives three of his own.

The cynical Explanation 1 is that there are certain fields, and certain academics, in whose case the bad writing is intentional: to bamboozle the readers, or as "emperor's clothing". (For likely examples, see Dennis Dutton's The Bad Writing Contest: 1996–1998 and Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate.) Even in the unfathomable example given here, this is a possibility. But having recognized this, we can move to the more interesting cases, where the obscurity is unintentional.

Then Pinker considers Explanation 2, academics’ “self-serving” one: that there is inherent complexity in what is being discussed, and therefore difficult writing is unavoidable. Although this is true to some extent (every field has its jargon), it is not a complete explanation. Even expert readers are baffled by articles from their own sub-sub-subfield. Pinker gives this example:

Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.

which he considers "not as concise, accurate, or scientific" as the plain:

Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false.

He also mentions an Explanation 3: that gatekeepers of journals expect difficult language. This is not true: every field has some papers that are well-written.

Instead, Pinker comes up with three other explanations (which I reproduce here in reverse order).

Explanation 4 is that academics simply have few (or no) incentives for writing well. Clarity requires practice, showing drafts to readers, and a toolbox of skills. This is a lot of work and the profession does not reward it (directly, at least). (And there are even some incentives against writing well, along the lines of the recent article on perverse incentives in academia.)

Explanation 5 is the Curse of Knowledge: once you know something, it becomes hard for you to imagine what it is like for someone else to not know it. (Related terms: “false consensus”, “illusory transparency”, etc.)

For example, jargon and abbreviations that you personally use frequently can become second-nature to you while remaining opaque to readers (even your colleagues). There are names in cognitive psychology for two phenomena that explain why authors fail to think like their readers: “chunking” and “functional fixity” (jargon, but he explains them).

The amount of abstraction a writer can get away with depends on the expertise of his readership. But divining the chunks that have been mastered by a typical reader requires a gift of clairvoyance with which few of us are blessed.

[…]

They are not trying to bamboozle their readers; it’s just the way they think. The specialists are no longer thinking—and thus no longer writing—about tangible objects, and instead are referring to them by the role those objects play in their daily travails.

A psychologist calls the labels true and false "assessment words" because that’s why he put them there—so that the participants in the experiment could assess whether it applied to the preceding sentence. Unfortunately, he left it up to us to figure out what an "assessment word" is.

The other explanation from this article (the first and longest one given by Pinker) is based on a theory of different styles of writing, in terms of what kind of conversation authors imagine themselves to be having with their readers. Instead of writing in "classic style" (writing as presentation, for directing the reader's gaze towards the truth, successful when clear and simple), academic writing is often in a blend of two styles: a "practical style" (writing in a fixed template, for satisfying a reader's need for a particular kind of information) and "self-conscious style". This is Explanation 6, but it needs a bit of elaboration on what this "self-conscious style" is, and how it manifests.

In self-conscious style, "the writer's chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise".

Their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation—an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild.

Pinker considers many common flaws in academic writing to be symptoms of this style: metadiscourse (writing about the writing itself, as in "The preceding paragraph demonstrated…" which could be "As we have seen…"), professional narcissism (talking about the world of their profession, rather than about the world of the things they're studying: "In recent years, an increasing number of psychologists and linguists have…"), apologizing (about how complicated/controversial their topic is), shudder quotes, hedging, and metaconcepts/nominalizations.

This last one is especially interesting: academics really do bucket their ideas using certain abstractions, but forget to unpack them for the reader. Plus, English makes it easy to make nouns out of verbs: instead of postponing something you can implement its postponement, and so on. The example from Explanation 2 above has many instances of this, as does this:

Prevention of neurogenesis diminished social avoidance.

rather than

When we prevented neurogenesis, the mice no longer avoided other mice.

The point is that the authors may actually be thinking in the former terms and categories, and fail to write in "classic style" for the reader from the reader's point of view. I believe this is important enough to count as a separate Explanation 7.

And regardless of whether authors are thinking/writing in classic style or self-conscious style, it seems to me that many of these bad habits are things one can easily pick up from reading other academic writing, which is Explanation 8.


In the articles included in the same download, there is an overlapping explanation (Explanation 9): academics have many reasons for using jargon, and not all of them are good for the reader:

Academics turn to jargon for a wide variety of reasons: to display their erudition, to signal membership in a disciplinary community, to demonstrate their mastery of complex concepts, to cut briskly into a continuing scholarly conversation, to push knowledge in new directions, to challenge readers’ thinking, to convey ideas and facts efficiently, to play around with language. (Helen Sword, Inoculating Against Jargonitis)


The other article (The Science of Scientific Writing by Gopen & Swan) is very valuable on some precise ways in which academic (especially scientific) writing is harder to understand than it needs to be. Its main point is that there are certain structural cues that readers unconsciously use for interpretation, but authors do not always satisfy those expectations. (Some of its points are also in this video, accompanied by this handout.)

For example, they consider the following paragraph:

The smallest of the URF's (URFA6L), a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene. The functional significance of the other URF's has been, on the contrary, elusive. Recently, however, immunoprecipitation experiments with antibodies to purified, rotenone-sensitive NADH-ubiquinone oxido-reductase [hereafter referred to as respiratory chain NADH dehydrogenase or complex I] from bovine heart, as well as enzyme fractionation studies, have indicated that six human URF's (that is, URF1, URF2, URF3, URF4, URF4L, and URF5, hereafter referred to as ND1, ND2, ND3, ND4, ND4L, and ND5) encode subunits of complex I. This is a large complex that also contains many subunits synthesized in the cytoplasm.

If you asked people why it was hard to read, most would mention the technical vocabulary and background knowledge required. These are obviously necessary, so one might consider such paragraphs impossible to improve. However, that is not the whole problem.

At the level of sentences, the article discusses some rough principles:

  • In the first sentence above, there are 23 words between the subject ("The smallest") and the verb ("has been identified"). Readers tend to treat what comes between them as an interruption, and pay less attention to it.
  • A sentence is expected to make a single point, or serve a single function. It is best if this appears at the end of the sentence (the "stress position").
  • At the beginning of sentences (the "topic position", what the sentence is about), the reader expects perspective/linkage and context.
  • So, readers are helped most when sentences consistently start with old information (linkage) and end with emphasis on new information. “In our experience, the misplacement of old and new information turns out to be the No. 1 problem in American professional writing today.”

(The above is a crude summary; you can read the article for nuances.)

Based on some of these principles (and with some guesswork about the authors’ intentions), it rewrites the above paragraph to:

The smallest of the URF's, URFA6L, has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene; but the functional significance of other URF's has been more elusive. Recently, however, several human URF's have been shown to encode subunits of rotenone-sensitive NADH-ubiquinone oxido-reductase. This is a large complex that also contains many subunits synthesized in the cytoplasm; it will be referred to hereafter as respiratory chain NADH dehydrogenase or complex I. Six subunits of Complex I were shown by enzyme fractionation studies and immunoprecipitation experiments to be encoded by six human URF's (URF1, URF2, URF3, URF4, URF4L, and URF5); these URF's will be referred to subsequently as ND1, ND2, ND3, ND4, ND4L and ND5.

This still has all the jargon, but readers who understand it are more likely to arrive at the same interpretation as what the author is trying to say, and more easily.

But many authors consistently violate these principles and do the exact opposite (putting new information first without linkage, and old information at the end where it receives emphasis), for which the article has the following (continuing my numbering in this answer) Explanation 10:

The source of the problem is not hard to discover: Most writers produce prose linearly (from left to right) and through time. As they begin to formulate a sentence, often their primary anxiety is to capture the important new thought before it escapes. Quite naturally they rush to record that new information on paper, after which they can produce at their leisure contextualizing material that links back to the previous discourse. Writers who do this consistently are attending more to their own need for unburdening themselves of their information than to the reader's need for receiving the material.

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    I think parts of this answer may be guilty of the same intellectual overcomplications that it calls out. "readers look for the arrival of the verb, especially immediately after the grammatical subject." Really? – Weckar E. Feb 22 '17 at 12:14
  • Stack Exchange values clear, simple queations and answers. This is far too broad. – user58748 Feb 22 '17 at 13:58
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    Thanks for posting this-- best answer in my opinion as it includes actual research on the subject. My own pet peeves are papers that begin "There has been much recent activity/interest in the field of ...." and the use of passive-voice everywhere. – Pete Feb 22 '17 at 20:46
  • @WeckarE. Good catch, you're right! With that sentence, this answer was itself guilty of using unnecessary jargon by thinking in the author's concepts, rather than the readers’. I replaced it with something that should be clearer (there are 23 words between the subject ("The smallest") and the verb ("has been identified")). Can you take another look? (To be clear, note that the issue called out is not exactly “intellectual overcomplications” (like "overthinking it"): sometimes the topic really is technical (I'm sure grammar is relevant to the effect here); the problem is with the writing.) – ShreevatsaR Feb 23 '17 at 15:23
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    @KeithDavies You are right that the two sentences don't mean exactly the same thing. In fact, this may be one of the ways in which the plainer sentence is more accurate and scientific. The original sentence was trying to do two things at once: say what the participants read, and why the experimenters put "true" and "false" there. Simply saying "veracity was either affirmed or denied" leaves it unclear whether this was just the experimenters' intention, or the participants were informed (if so, the reader should be told that explicitly, else better to directly state what the participants saw). – ShreevatsaR Feb 23 '17 at 18:27
17

Precision.

Writing a lot by myself I find that I tend towards long, complex sentences whenever it is important that I communicate a point as precisely and correctly as possible.

The use of difficult terminology is not really an argument here, as papers are usually geared towards an audience that can be assumed to understand the terms. Sure, as a non-expert in the field half of them will be like chinese to the reader, but such a reader is not the target audience.

On the contrary, specific terminology is used for the express purpose of precision. It has a well-defined, specific meaning within the field. If you read RFCs in computer science, for example, even seemingly simple words like "shall" and "must" have exactly defined meanings. Same in legal texts, where seemingly normal english words have a specific, precisely defined legal meaning. Every branch of science has its own terms that are understood by those practicing it.

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    Suffering from... verbosity myself, I can tell the aim is, indeed, accuracy. Using long sentences often serves to narrow things down, and obscure terms are chosen from among synonyms because they best fit what's on your mind. – kaay Feb 20 '17 at 10:54
  • Indeed, a big problem with language is that, in general, the shorter a word is, the broader the scope of meaning(s) to which it applies. Nailing down which meaning is intended then requires qualifiers. To the casual observer, this can look like deliberately puffing up the language to seem more sophisticated, but often it's just what one must do to avoid being misinterpreted. – Monty Harder Feb 20 '17 at 21:13
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    @kaay You can be accurate with few words, but it takes many to be precise. – jiggunjer Feb 22 '17 at 2:30
  • @jiggunjer wondefully phrased, and captures in fourteen words what was about to take me a paragraph. Exactly so -- precision can involve long and convoluted language because it conveys exactly what the writer means, where 'simpler language' would be insufficiently precise. – Keith Davies Feb 23 '17 at 17:22
12

A few things I've seen in my young career:

1) Age - a researcher who is nearing retirement age today would have been learning the ropes in the late 70's to early 80's. If they stay past retirement age they could be older still. The language changes over time.

2) Language proficiency - there are many researchers for whom English is a second language. When both the authors and the readers are using a non-native language there is bound to be some difficulty in communicating. Consider what happens when a German author is trying to translate the German in their head into English, and the Chinese reader is trying to translate the English on the page into Chinese in their head.

3) Background - one of my advisers was a literature undergrad. He didn't let the language get out of hand, but also wasn't afraid to use less common vocabulary if it was particularly suitable for the situation. Even with non-language backgrounds someone might find a concept or jargon term from an earlier part of their life to be particularly appropriate, without realizing how specific it is.

4) Laziness - lastly, and most unfortunately, is that there are many papers that are just poorly written and poorly edited. Everyone understands that papers submitted for review are not totally finalized, but some have glaring typos or things like sentences that end

It's obvious that some of those papers had not been even cursorily proofread.

  • Professional or Scientific English has not changed significantly since the 1970s, AFAICT. Mostly you've had some added jargon for newer technology. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Feb 23 '17 at 14:48
7

I am not allowed to comment, so this answer is actually a comment on Jeff's answer.

"That is, you learn to be a researcher in your field by reading the work of past researchers. That frames your concept of what quality writing in your field looks like, which you then adopt to some degree"

I can relate to this, but in an opposite way.

First, something about my background. I am a researcher in a field of humanities. My field has both primary and secondary sources. Of them the primary sources are usually in dead, ancient languages, but the secondary are mostly in English. In my own research, I use the primary sources as my main tool to produce something new, but to do so properly, I have to pick holes in the secondary sources already published.

As a result, the secondary sources, in my experience, have usually been more burdensome than helpful for me. Perhaps this is why the real influence on my writing comes from my web-surfing, not from the English of my secondary sources---one's burden can hardly be one's hero. In fact, I have to be extra careful to prevent my writing getting too informal.

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    It sucks when you are not allowed to do basic things like commenting – Flying Gambit Feb 20 '17 at 9:36
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    @FlyingGambit Well, this well-received answer alone has now given ashinpan freedom to comment on whatever he likes. The system works again! :-) – hBy2Py Feb 20 '17 at 18:06
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    Sure, so long as no one comes along and says "This isn't really an answer; you should make it a comment!", which is the singular least-helpful comment one can make on SE. – Monty Harder Feb 20 '17 at 21:14
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    Well, comments on SE really are not for discussion or anecdotes. They should be to ask clarification or make suggestions. This is a commonly derided failure of the SE terminology. – user58748 Feb 22 '17 at 13:56
5

While it is possible that the outcome might be problematic, oftentimes I find that there are some concepts that are difficult to explain succinctly. I would not call these terms Jargon, but rather very contextual and specific.

Insofar as those words are appropriate for the audience, and maybe even clarified for those who are unfamiliar, then there should be no issue.

I don't think that the meaning is hidden, but it comes down to the depth of the topic. What may appear to be one word is actually representing 20 words and several ideas. As long as the sophistication of the word is a measure of the depth of the issue. I would say that the author is being masterful, rather than doing a disservice to himself or herself.

Whenever I see such a term, I actually think of it as a marker that the topic is more nuanced and complex. The additional time you spend, is not merely a 1:1 translation, but could actually involve understanding many different meanings.

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    Actually, there's nothing wrong with jargon that evokes a very specific meaning, where the vernacular equivalent is so ill-defined as to be worthless in a technical discussion. – Monty Harder Feb 20 '17 at 21:17
3

In peer reviewed journals you have to communicate your results in a very precise way. You can't just say things, for any statement made in the article it has to be immediately clear how that statement is arrived at. It's not allowed for this to become clear later, not even a sentence later. Either references are given at the end of the sentence or it is pointed out in that sentence (e.g. by saying "as we shall demonstrate in the next section"). It should be clear that writing in this way consistently throughout an entire article will inevitably lead to many awkward sentences.

3

In my field, computer science, papers are typically 7 to 12 pages long. That means authors have to take very complicated ideas and compress them into only a few thousand words! In my experience, our first drafts usually go significantly over the page limit. In our first revisions, we pick out a few ideas that aren't necessary to express our main point and cut them, saving us a page or two. Then, we're a handful of paragraphs over the page limit, and in order to keep all of the rest of the paper - which we've decided we really need - there are only two things to do: Play with the formatting, and reword sentences to be shorter.

When we shorten our sentences, it is oftentimes very difficult to avoid making them dense to the point of being a little difficult to understand. It's a careful balancing act between aggressively editing down the length of our paper and still keeping both the full meaning of our paper and an acceptable level of readability.

(I understand that computer science's short papers are rather unusual for an entire field, so maybe this isn't the case in other fields.)

3

These are some personal findings on this topic:

  • The word must not collide with the use of other words. In normal speaking, you know... (hand waving)... it's like... In a journal a word must have a clear specific meaning, which is something that the normal speaking is not and English is one of the worst languages for various reasons. The good thing in the wide vocabulary is that there is likely to exist a word that is more specific about what you mean like proffer which is a bit similar to offer, but not quite. The another thing is that you often end up saying things like: "from now on we shall mean with the word humpty a state of being dumpty" You then may not use the word humpty out of this definition. You may want to use a word that means something similar, but such that will not be used elsewhere.
  • Being specific means that one often needs to explain the idea more, which may end up making really long, in the case of a journal about 59 words, sentences, in order to convey the meaning in the manner that follows the procedure found appropriate in the journals, and which then having been used for a long time is customary.
  • Non-linear complexity of reasoning and concepts; something that a human languages were not indeed made to convey.
  • Non-native speakers make awkward translations. Something you may see probably already in this message. While being highly trained to write their thoughts in grammatically right English, the sentence may end up being a mess, but still right.
2

As the other answers show, the reasons for using complex language are diverse. A good reason is that the author's idea is itself complex, and needs precise language involving many qualifications to express it. A bad reason is that the author doesn't have much original to say, but hopes to give an appearance of deep up-to-date knowledge by packing sentences with technical terms—the aim being, perhaps, to impress a reviewer who doesn't have the time to delve into the meaning (and possibly ascertain that there isn't much to be found), and thus possibly get the paper passed for publication. Nowadays, to secure an academic post, the publication count is all-important; whether what is published is actually worth reading is secondary. (As for citation scores, authors of this type typically generate impressively long lists of references by generously citing each other.)

Thus, each case of complex language needs to be assessed separately. In your example sentence "The algorithm fathoms in a synergetic manner globally, and [in] an antagonistic depth quest locally", I am inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt. I seems to be about an algorithm for minimization: a field at the intersection of numerical analysis and applied theoretical computer science. The sentence would make sense in the context that the algorithm operates either with reference to other algorithms functioning in parallel or as a parallel suite of algorithms. An analogy could be the deployment of a team of geologists prospecting for ore over a wide region: They cooperate as a team in planning the whole search; but, when a "hot spot" has been located, each of them goes off and competitively uses her own method to dig at an isolated patch in the hot spot.

1

I edit and translate papers, mainly in the social sciences. I see a tremendous amount of writing that the author thought would make the work look more authoritative and convincing, and would make himself look more hirable. I think that much of convoluted academic writing stems from what some people anxiously believe is necessary. People think, When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and since they see a lot of fancy-looking writing, they try to make their writing fancy too. More often than not, when I chop up their sentences and propose simpler, clearer versions, they are please and relieved to see their ideas coming off the page better.

Please give us a link to the paper you quoted ("The algorithm fathoms in a synergetic manner globally, and an antagonistic depth quest locally").

Without reading the context, it's impossible to really know, but -- perhaps they used "fathom" to mean determine the depth, and when they wrote "antagonistic," they meant to make some kind of contrast.

  • "I see a tremendous amount of writing that the author thought would make the work look more authoritative and convincing, and would make himself look more hirable." Which is basically the entire point that Howard Becker makes, although he also argues that some of it comes from signaling: "The tribe I want to be part of writes this way, there for I must." – anonymous Feb 20 '17 at 18:34
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Take a simple concept C, that has two connections A and B to related concepts.

Now if you take two concepts C, you can connect them in four different ways: {A-A}, {B-B}, {A-A,B-B}, {A-B,B-A}. So using combinations of those two simple concepts, you can express only 4 other different concepts (and only two of those other concepts have free connections to build even more concepts).

You can thus understand that the combination of concepts to build more complex or more refined concepts is relatively limited: when you start with simple concepts, you won't be able to express an infinite number of concepts with them.

Once you've used up all the combinations of simple words, you're left with more complex words, identifying more complex concepts, to establish or describe your new ideas.

The sentence given in example, is actually very concise and clear, while transmitting a good high level picture of the described algorithm, which has a uncommon and surprising structure. I cannot find a simplier way to express it. Using "smaller" words would imply having to use multiple sentences, perhaps a whole paragraph to give a similar description of the algorithm in question.

  • You can thus understand that the combination of concepts to build more complex or more refined concepts is relatively limited: when you start with simple concepts, you won't be able to express an infinite number of concepts with them. I strongly disagree with this statement -- the only way to build complexity is by stringing together simpler thoughts. A single complex thought may encompass many simple thoughts, yes -- but if it obscures the thought altogether (as I think the author is getting at), then what does that matter? Sometimes, many simple thoughts > few complex thoughts. – tonysdg Feb 19 '17 at 20:21
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    Is this answer an attempt to reproduce the issue identified by the OP? – iled Feb 20 '17 at 3:45

protected by eykanal Feb 20 '17 at 14:42

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