Online tool helps scholars write more clearly, avoid 'the curse of knowledge'

a woman writing with a notebook and a laptop

Research supports something long suspected by those who have struggled to read academic writing: The better someone knows a topic, the more difficult their writing about that subject can be to understand. This issue can create hurdles for scholars who want their research to reach more people.

University of Arizona researchers have developed an online tool to help. The Writing Clarity Calculator is designed to help scholars determine how clear their writing is.

"Because we know a lot about our research, we don't think our writing is unclear," UArizona assistant professor of marketing Nooshin Warren said of scholars' writing. Warren, who teaches in the Department of Marketing in the Eller College of Management, was part of the team that put together the website. "We are trying to be clear, and to us, it is clear. The challenge is that we don't understand that it might not be to others."

Nooshin Warren, Assistant Professor, Department of Marketing

Nooshin Warren, Assistant Professor, Department of Marketing

Warren said the online tool can analyze part or all of an article to determine how clear the language is. The site scores the writing in part by comparing it to 10 years' worth of articles in the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Marketing Research and the Journal of Consumer Research. Warren said it's important to note that the site does not save or store any of the writing entered. The team hopes to attract more funding to expand the site's database of articles beyond the marketing field.

"We have come to realize it isn't just a problem in our field, it's a problem everywhere," Warren said. "If you talk to engineers, you see it's the same. If you talk to physicians, you see it's the same."

'The curse of knowledge'

The website is a result of research published in the Journal of Marketing by Warren's team last year. The study, "Marketing Ideas: How to Write Research Articles that readers Understand and Cite," concluded that scholars write unclearly in part because they forget that they know more about their research than readers – a phenomenon known as "the curse of knowledge."

"When I was a Ph.D. student, I was reading these academic papers and having trouble understanding them," said Warren, the study's lead author. "I thought, 'I'm a Ph.D. student; I don't get it yet, but I will later.' And then later came, and nothing really changed."

In the study by Nooshin and her collaborators, almost all researchers surveyed said they try to write in a way that everyone understands. However, nearly all of them said they sometimes, often or always have trouble understanding the writing in academic journals. The study also found that scholars tend to write less clearly when writing about their own research as opposed to other people's work, and that research papers written more clearly tend to be cited more often in research citation databases.

The website that the team developed scores papers based on three issues identified in the research that can make scholarly papers difficult to understand.

  • Academic writing is abstract. Researchers often write about abstract concepts such as "brand experience" or "consumer satisfaction." Concrete concepts, in contrast, are things we can see, feel, taste, smell and hear, and tend to be more understandable. For example, Warren said writing about "post-purchase behavior" is less relatable than writing about "posting a one-star review on Yelp."
  • Academic writing is technical. Warren said researchers instinctively use technical language or jargon, especially when they want to impress readers and editors. Using more common language can make articles more readable. An academic writer my use a technical term, like "heterogeneous," when they could say something simpler, like "different."
  • Academic writing is passive. Passive writing, or writing that obscures the person, place or thing performing an action, can make articles wordy and harder to understand. For example, the sentence, "It was determined the product is of high quality," obscures who did the determining. Warren said readers tend to read articles written with active language more quickly and remember them better.

In addition to using the site, Warren suggests that scholars have someone who is not familiar with their research read their writing. She says those with knowledge of the subject are more likely to glide through abstract, technical and passive writing.

Warren's co-authors on the paper included Caleb Warren, an associate professor of marketing in the Eller College of Management; Matthew Farmer, a research associate in the Eller Department of Marketing; and Tianyu Gu, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Utah.

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