Why is most academic writing so complicated

Scientists are too aloof and stubborn to write in understandable language. That is a common accusation. But the criticized have their reasons.

It is such sentences that normal mortals doubt the meaning of science:

"The evaluation of this unequal accessibility implied by the figure of the digital divide interprets a limited or deficient digital ability to act on the part of the user, which is conceptually paternalistic."

Such sentences - incomprehensible, nested, peppered with technical terms - are uttered by people who have studied, researched and unearthed exciting things for years. Their findings deserve to be widely discussed. Instead, as a layperson, you ask yourself: Why is it so complicated?

For anyone who enjoys bashing elites as much as Donald Trump does, the answer is clear: Scientists don't want you to understand them. They want to stand out from the common people and rule the world with their expert knowledge. They are just - elitist.

This argumentation is tempting, but it has something of a conspiracy theory: a large group of very different people - students and academics - are generally assumed to have sinister intentions that are neither verifiable nor verifiable. On the other hand, science has done its homework in this area too, in the analysis of its own language: linguists investigate the history and forms of the German scientific language. So the question goes to them: why so complicated?

Because there is no other way without changing the content of the sentence, so the first answer. Marcel Dräger, who has a doctorate in linguistics, research assistant at the German Department of the University of Zurich and advisor for knowledge communication, puts it this way: “Every change in language also means a change in content. You cannot turn a complicated text into a simple text without loss. " If you write simply “arrogant” instead of “conceptually paternalistic”, the astute analysis turns into a clumsy (but understandable) reproach. Science, according to this explanation, has to be precise, and the respective technical language is the most precise.

It is not just “students” who speak like that

Michael Prinz, who also has a doctorate in linguistics, a specialist in the history of the German academic language and senior assistant at the German seminar in Zurich, has a second, more radical answer ready. He says of the sentence quoted at the beginning: "Perhaps the target group for whom it was written does not find the sentence so complicated?" In other words: if a sentence that is complicated for laypeople is not intended for laypeople at all, but for an experienced specialist audience, then it is not complicated for these people, but rather precise and understandable.

And indeed: The sentence comes from an interview with the sociologist Vassilis Tsianos about migration and modern media in the Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, a specialist journal. Those who read the sentence are experts. It should be clear and legible to them. It's about comprehensibility for a specific target group, not for the whole world.

The goal cannot be for experts to express themselves more and more simply, but for them to adapt their style to the respective situation.

Nevertheless: at some point the knowledge transfer from the professional world to society has to take place. Doesn't expert languages ​​delimit specialists from the rest of the population in a problematic way? "Every technical language distinguishes specialists from non-specialists," says Prinz. "That is not a special feature of scientific languages." The word "dragonfly", to describe the air bubble in a spirit level, is more familiar to a bricklayer than a classical philologist. “Of course,” continues Prinz, “technical language also serves to create such expert groups in the first place. Anyone who does not speak the language is not one of them. But that applies to craftsmen and bankers as well as to scientists. " Technical languages ​​definitely have a purpose: the smooth and precise communication between experts. However, these experts are not necessarily “studied”.

The goal cannot be for experts to express themselves more and more simply, but for them to adapt their style to the respective situation. That they speak differently at a lecture in an old people's home than at a conference. There are shining examples of this ability, such as the German specialist Peter von Matt. However, Dräger contradicts the impression that such figures are the exception: "If the opportunity arises to make scientific findings accessible to a wider audience, then it will be taken." Both linguists leave the question of how often they write or present for a non-professional audience open. But he often answers questions from laypeople who are interested in complicated details, says Prinz. “People want exact answers and are grateful when they get 'difficult' science. It has never happened before that someone has asked whether it couldn't be a little easier. "

What is good for your career

One thing is clear, however: when specialists answer inquiries from the population, give interviews or proofread a quiz question on a television program - people like Prinz do all of this - then they usually do it without anything in return. They are not employed for this and are not released from other duties for it. That, and not an elitist attitude, is the reason why public relations work comes second for scientists like Prinz or Dräger: It is simply not part of the employment contract.

"Most historians' work is just building blocks for their careers."
Niklaus Meienberg

In addition, placement work is not exactly career-enhancing. Dräger: “If you want to become a professor as a scientist, you have to prove your ability with numerous good publications. Articles in daily newspapers and a large audience don't help. " Especially in mid-level faculty, where the competition is as great as the hope of finding your own chair, you have to set priorities. The journalist Niklaus Meienberg sharply criticized this system as early as 1986 in relation to the subject of history: "Most historians forego a larger audience from the outset, their works are just building blocks for their careers." Dräger counters this: "You shouldn't blame a scientist for concentrating on his career."

Subject "Just write"

Most who would be willing to write understandably for a wide audience would have to practice this skill first. And that takes time and energy. And so actually only a natural talent can express himself regularly and in a way that is understandable for laypeople. Anyone who expects this from all university scientists is underestimating the effort required for their core tasks in research and teaching.

So if you want every expert to be able to express themselves easily and comprehensibly for everyone, then you have to make public relations a more central part of scientific work. As long as one does not do that - for example to avoid losses in research and teaching - it is contradictory to accuse scientists of the complexity of their language.

And nevertheless. Ultimately, research is about increasing human knowledge as a whole. This very humanity should play a certain role as an audience. If the answer to anti-academic elite bashing is to retreat to increasingly defensive, nervous public relations, it will be of no use in the end. After all, the emerging idea of ​​science as a service to society was one of the reasons why German began to replace Latin as the language of science in the 18th century.

So why not teach a different skill at the university in addition to the scientific craft, namely to present complicated content in a way that is understandable for laypeople? After completing their studies, only a fraction of the students will embark on an academic career anyway. "Non-scientific writing for scientists?" Prince is skeptical. "That sounds a bit like uneconomical thinking for bankers to me."

But maybe that was what it needed now and then.