Sing, or fade. Sing, or die.

by Alistair

The other day I was fortunate enough to stumble across a blog post titled What is your academic paper for? by William Tozier. In it he dissects the motivation behind academic publishing, along with its usefulness (or lack thereof) in the grand scheme of sharing knowledge with your peers in the field.

However the main thrust of the article is how banal and formulaic the vast majority of academic writing is, and it’s pretty much a plea for academic researchers (but could be just as easily applied to business writing/management-ese in my opinion) to inject some passion, creativity, and purpose into their writing.

Those other words, the long-form prose, the writing skills you should have learned in your “breadth” training, when instead somebody made you start focusing on your specialty: those are the only sword you are afforded, with which you might, possibly cut your way free.

Speaking as someone who’s worked in this area, and not that long ago struggled through the thesis-writing process which took far, far longer that it should have (and that, I admit, I did my best to make conform to the standards of academic prose that Tozier lambasts), this article really hit home.

Let’s be honest: anyone who’s been involved in any sort of research knows that academic conference and/or journal papers generally aren’t what you’d classify as page-turners. There’s a formula, the author(s) try to over-complicate things and obfuscate the flaws in the research, and generally try to stake their claims of originality, novelty, and significance in the driest way possible.

And who’s to blame them? We’ve all heard of publish or perish, and any writing which strays beyond the accepted norms will probably have a higher likelihood of being criticised by a referee, so there’s no wonder we have the current status-quo.

After reading this blog I remembered the best thesis I’ve read, which is Andrew Tridgell‘s, of Samba fame. His PhD thesis was actually very engaging and extremely readable. Consider the first couple of paragraphs in his first chapter:

My first introduction to the problem of parallel sorting came from a problem in the implementation of an automatic speech recognition training program. A set of speech data needed to be normalized in order to be used as the input to a recurrent neural network system and I decided that a quick-and-dirty way of doing this would be to sort the data, then sample it at regular intervals to generate a histogram.

This is a terribly inefficient way of normalizing data in terms of computational complexity but is a quite good way in terms of software engineering because the availability of easy to use sorting routines in subroutine libraries makes the amount of coding required very small. I had already used this technique in the serial version of the speech recognition system so it seemed natural to do the same for the parallel version.

With this in mind I looked in the subroutine library of the parallel machine I was using…

You want to read more don’t you? The guy is telling a story of how his thesis was formulated and the experiences which led to his PhD work. After a beginning like this you just want to read more. Tridgell’s writing is not exactly what you’d call traditional academic prose, however it would be very hard to argue that he doesn’t communicate his research any less effectively; many would agree that it’s a great improvement.

Tozier’s article is, I think, essential reading for any researcher looking to publish their work, and in particular those that are just starting out in the field. There’s nothing wrong with doing your utmost to write well, to create something readable and engaging, and going beyond the bare-minimum that’s required as dictated by the expected norms. And who knows, it might even actually benefit your IF!