It's Time for Academics to Write Differently

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Monday, March 7, 2022
By Kevin Rockmann, Erik Dane
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
Stop hitting the “snooze” button on your academic writing. Instead, produce scholarship that audiences will not only read but—dare we say it—enjoy.
  • Researchers serve their careers and their audiences better by writing in more accessible prose.
  • When scholars experiment with literary techniques, they improve their thinking as well as their writing.
  • Established journals could begin promoting fresher academic writing by posting public-facing content on their websites, reserving complete papers for print.

Think back to the last time you went away on vacation, whether it was a couple months or a couple years ago. On the train, airplane, or beach—how many people did you see reading academic journals? By some fluke, if you did encounter an actual paper copy of Academy of Management Journal or Administrative Science Quarterly in the wild, it’s likely you would have correctly recognized one of your own—a business academic.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. That’s what most of us in academia think—or at least have been led to believe. The impenetrability of most academic prose and the ungainly structure of our journal articles may repel laypeople, but that could be seen as a necessary evil. Theoretically, the forbidding nature of our writing serves a purpose: It creates a forum for professional scientists to debate and develop ideas, before they are subjected to a mass-minded dumbing-down.

However, this somewhat self-serving justification doesn’t hold up. We recently surveyed the members of the editorial review board of Academy of Management Discoveries, for which we both serve as editors, on their reading preferences. We asked them to rate 19 top management journals, from the Financial Times 50 (a list of prominent journals in business school disciplines) to popular-press publications such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. The results were startling. Our 77 respondents ranked the nonscientific journals higher, not just for enjoyability, which is troubling enough, but also for informational value.

If this small-scale study is any indication, even scholars are put off by academic writing. The ideas in our journals may be insightful and fresh, but the medium is impeding the message. Given the choice, we all would rather read prose that engages as it edifies. If it also tells a gripping story, so much the better.

Understanding the Benefits of Vivid Writing

We argue that there are several compelling reasons for academics to revitalize our writing. First and foremost, it aids our career advancement. Studies have shown that better-written papers—those that use techniques such as first-person narration and vivid contextual detail, and go easy on scientific jargon—are more broadly cited on the whole.

Though rare, such writing is not unheard-of in the field of management theory. In fact, several of the discipline’s “classics” feature page-turning elements. For example, Bill Starbuck’s 1992 article on knowledge-intensive firms (which has more than 2,400 citations and counting, according to Google Scholar) begins with a sentence more reminiscent of a novel or short story than a conventional academic paper: “The General Manager of the Garden Company (a pseudonym) invited John Dutton and me to advise him about what he called their ‘lot-sized problem.’”

Even scholars are put off by academic writing. The ideas in our journals may be insightful and fresh, but the medium is impeding the message.

Second, more accessible writing expands the audience for our ideas. By continuing to write only for other scientists (who mostly, as we’ve seen, prefer to get their knowledge elsewhere), we cede the practitioner audience to Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review and other venues for “translational writing.” Sure, many researchers reinterpret their academic writing for practitioners, but why do things twice, especially when key nuances may be lost in translation? Wouldn’t managers be better served by going straight to the source, provided the research papers were crafted to meet them halfway? Even if the technical details of a manuscript are inaccessible to a practitioner, there is no reason the prose should turn them away.

Third, experimenting with literary techniques could improve our thinking as well as our writing. Too often, we approach our subject matter with our “scientist” hat already fixed in place. Inflexible habits of thought don’t do justice to the world’s phenomena—or our own theory-making. If we looked at the world with an eye toward dramatizing rather than dissecting, we might see possibilities and points of view that would otherwise remain invisible within our cognitive comfort zone.

Convinced that literary experimentation can fuel advancements in research, we launched a section within Academy of Management Discoveries called Discoveries-through-Prose. This new section is dedicated to “empower[ing] authors to craft their manuscripts in nontraditional ways that make for tighter, more engaging narratives.”

What does that look like in practice? The first article accepted for Discoveries-through-Prose explores how the internal dynamics of child welfare agencies start to resemble the dysfunctional relationships of the troubled families these agencies are tasked with helping. Like an unflinching magazine exposé, the paper starts by describing a harrowing confrontation between a social worker and an allegedly abusive mother forced to surrender her child to authorities. The author of the paper, William Kahn of Boston University, quotes the distraught mother’s R-rated language in full, a stylistic choice unusual for peer-reviewed journals but appropriate to the emotionally intense subject matter.

Keeping It Simple: Don’t Bury the Lede

OK—maybe you’re not quite ready to go there in your research writing. And perhaps you’re of the well-founded opinion that entertaining narratives and vivid character descriptions should be left to literary professionals. The good news is that, as researchers, we don’t have to be J.K. Rowling or the late great Joan Didion to improve our writing significantly. We could start with one of the first principles of good prose: concision.

Many papers would be more accessible, and no less informative, if they were trimmed down to the essence. Addressing the famous five W’s of journalism—who, what, when, where, and why—may be a useful guide.

Many papers we’ve come across would be much more accessible, and no less informative, if they were trimmed down to the essence. Addressing the famous five W’s of journalism—who, what, when, where, and why—may be a useful guide. Theoretical intricacies and complicated statistical models are, of course, necessary for establishing credibility, but do they really need to be placed front and center? They would do their job equally well as appendices to the main paper. That simple structural change, not much more difficult to execute than a cut-and-paste in Microsoft Word, would massively increase readability (as some journals in the natural sciences have already figured out).

Another easy structural improvement would be to bring context to the forefront when appropriate. How many papers have you read—or perhaps written—where the contextual “lede” was buried beneath an extended, logy theoretical introduction? This sort of structure makes the research seem dry and abstract, when in fact it may spring directly from a unique data set or a rarefied or highly relevant field. Emphasizing context over theoretical questions can compensate for any lack of confidence you may have about your writing skills. Instead of racking your brain to make a literature review sound sexy, let the context do the work of involving the reader.

Achieving Serious Science Through Storytelling

At this point, we should acknowledge that academic writing did not evolve in a vacuum. Academics want to get published, so we write in order to please journal editors and reviewers. If we don’t respond to “revise-and-resubmit” requests, our work won’t advance through the publication process and our careers will founder along with our scholarship. Better writing can take us only so far if the journals don’t agree on the importance of accommodating readers and adjust their expectations accordingly.

But even so, producing more compelling academic writing might not be as big an ask as it seems. Look at Science and Nature, for example. They are extremely respected hard-science journals whose articles are generally shorter and more accessible than you’ll find in most peer-reviewed publications. Outlets more oriented to the social sciences—such as management or organizational behavior—should lend themselves even more to reader-friendly presentation.

While it’s unlikely that established journals in business academia will be willing to completely transform their content overnight, online publication provides an ideal platform for gradual innovation. Most people do their reading online nowadays. It’s perfectly sensible for journals to post more public-facing content on the website and reserve the complete papers for the print version, which is destined for academic libraries anyway.

When all is said and done, though, journals may do well to relax their attitudes around how rigorous research should and shouldn’t appear. We believe that a more colloquial writing style that downplays jargon and includes elements of storytelling can be an effective means of presenting rigorous science while also showing respect for the reader. By adopting this style, academics acknowledge that accessibility and impact are mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.

Kevin Rockmann
Professor of Management and PhD Program Director, George Mason University School of Business
Erik Dane
Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis
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