As someone who is just starting to read in the field, I found that most academic papers are quite 'stuffy'. They seem to use a great deal of complicated language and jargon needlessly.

I read Should academic papers necessarily carry a sober tone? and understand that jokes should be kept to a minimum but what about:

  • Simple language,
  • Metaphors/Allegories/Similes,
  • Casual language (speaking to the reader, using contractions, etc).

I think if you can contribute new knowledge to a field, and make it accessible to an 'average' educated user who isn't an expert in your field, then why wouldn't you?

Is casual tone unheard of in papers? Is it frowned upon? Do I ultimately need to learn to write in a more formal manner to get taken seriously in future works?

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    Something that you perceive as "jargon" could as well be established terminology, which aims to make the communication between experts more effective. A suitable technical term can sometimes replace 10 other words without losing information. Can you give us an example for some instances of complicated language and jargon you've encountered? Feb 25, 2017 at 18:33
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    Maybe you should pick up an introductory textbook first, before you wade through advanced academic papers? Feb 25, 2017 at 18:55
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    Also, the more important academic papers in many fields should be readable by people who only use English to read papers. They know all the technical terms in their fields, but may have trouble with an unfamiliar metaphor. Feb 25, 2017 at 21:03
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    @lighthousekeeper "Something that you perceive as 'jargon' could as well be established terminology, which aims to make the communication between experts more effective." It had better be -- that's the definition of the word "jargon"!! Feb 25, 2017 at 22:30
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    This is one reason why I love posting on Chem.SE -- if I feel like I have something useful and interesting to say in response to a question, I can write up something at a much more casual and much less thoroughly researched/supported level than I would have to if I were to try to publish an article. Case in point: right now I'm working on an answer where I plan to illustrate my point with both (a) contour plots; and (b) a photo of a boxer puppy with a balloon in its mouth. The latter would never fly in a journal article. :-)
    – hBy2Py
    Feb 25, 2017 at 22:47

4 Answers 4


It depends on the intended audience.

There is no one rule for writing, academic paper or otherwise. You should always "mold" your content to the level of the average reader of the venue.

Think Nature versus Scientific American, for instance. While I often read SciAm as an undergrad, I didn't really understand most of the Nature articles I had to read recently, because they are dense and full of acronyms that don't mean anything for me. Am I stupid? Maybe, but surely I'm not part of the intended audience of these specific papers. Clearly, both venues are different, one is more technical, the other is focused on scientific dissemination in a broader level. Submitting a very technical paper to a dissemination venue would be a bad idea, and vice versa.

From personal experience, even between technical venues, there is a significant difference. For my research, I alternate between heavily mathematical theory and applications. When I send articles to the IEEE VIS (or TVCG), the reviewers mostly skip the mathematical parts and expect a very "digested", non-mathematical analysis of the results.

I recently sent an article to a more mathematical conference (ISMM), following somewhat the same format I usually use for VIS, with a more detailed mathematical section, but with the same "digested" analysis afterwards. While the mathematical part was accepted mostly as is, the analysis part was heavily criticized, for being "vague" and mathematically inaccurate. It was my fault, I didn't fully mold the content to the venue.

EDIT: Let me more clearly phrase my point: Sometimes reviewers will complain that the paper was too accessible. My example was exactly that, by aiming at a larger audience, writing in "digested" English, instead of harder to understand mathematical definitions, my text was "too vague"/"cryptic".

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    I think specialised journals get far more technical than Nature, where the methodology may even be entirely banished to online supplements.
    – gerrit
    Feb 26, 2017 at 16:21

Something specific to you points:

  • Simple language: I haven't seen this in any scientific work. I guess it would sound odd but you may have heard of Randall Monroe's book "Thing explainer". I also recall that some time ago there was this short trend where people tried to describe their recent work only using the 1000 most used English words. So, you can do it, but for a journal or conference publication it would be very strange.

  • Metaphors/Allegories/Similes: Metaphors are in use. I think mainly native speakers and experienced writers use them. But note that metaphors may make it harder for non native speakers to understand the text and also note that some metaphors carry some connotation that not everybody will understand.

  • Casual language (speaking to the reader, using contractions, etc): I've seen "speaking to the reader" in some textbooks or monographs, but not in papers. For textbooks it makes more sense to me, because you can assume that the reader is indeed a student. For a paper, you generally have no idea if the reader is a grad student, a prof, or a senior scientists at a national lab, so it seems hard to get the tone right. As for contractions: I would avoid them as they don't help and they probably get edited out anyways.

  • One place where I've sometimes seen more casual language used is in 'perspective' articles, which are sort of on the border between scientific reporting and opinion journalism.
    – hBy2Py
    Feb 25, 2017 at 22:49

Complex language has a purpose. Journal articles often have length limitations and heavy use of acronyms and complex phrasing can be a very powerful tool for condensing similarly complex ideas into a short article.

Complex phrasing can also have utility in conveying highly precise ideas. Simple language and more accessible writing styles often have to leverage the reader's ability to interpret meaning and context. For casual reading this is fine, but for scientific publication it is typically most important to be extremely precise. Often this requires more dense and complex writing to achieve. This is similar to law, where legal language is equally dense and complex, but to the trained reader leaves little room for interpretation. The meaning is most explicit and unambiguous.

This, similarly, is the primary goal of scientific writing - to leave the audience without need to guess about what has been said. It may not be understood by an inexperienced reader, but when it is understood there is as little room for misinterpretation as possible.


I am a medical/technical writer with 30 years of experience. While some technical terms will always be required, plain, simple language is always better because it will facilitate comprehension for ALL readers. Especially these days, when research papers are becoming widely available to the general public, it is better to make your paper understandable to as wide an audience as possible. Also, if a scientist has read many papers, all equally useful, the paper that was easiest to comprehend is the one most likely to be remembered ... and cited. Here are recommended, open source writing references:

Strunk and White: The Elements of Style, http://www.bartleby.com/141/

OPEN ACCESS Article on science writing - The Science of Scientific Writing, in American Scientist, http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/the-science-of-scientific-writing/1

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