I say the key to good academic writing is saying complicated things as simply as possible. Winnie-the-Pooh says… pic.twitter.com/iYKFa4YxN2
— George Gosling (@gcgosling) March 9, 2015
Academia, whether that means teaching or studying, is ultimately a matter of communication. Our words are the lifeblood of what we do. So I regularly find myself stuggling to suppress my inner pedant when I read phrases that I know simply don’t do what they’re supposed to. So, if for no other reason than to release the build up of pedantry, here are my top six offenders. Of course, these are things for which I’d never dream of marking down a student, but I might counsel them against. If you use them all the time, it’s nothing personal.
This is one that gets used endlessly in student essays, and it’s hard to blame them when it’s used so frequently in academic texts. Unfortunately it is absolutely meaningless. Anything could be argued. I could write a blog post putting forward an argument for the sun being The Great Mother Satsuma, but I’d struggle to make the case convincingly. One of the things students find hardest to master is acknowledging complexity while still putting forward a strong argument. For me, this is the wrong side of the line. Arguably, starting a sentence by sitting on the fence like this is a bad habit to get into, as you can easily find yourself opting for this over and over, and miss the fact you haven’t actually argued anything. If you’re not convinced, attribute it to someone who is.
There is a simple way to structure an essay: argument, counter-argument, conclusion. It is easy, but I tend to advise against it. This is often a shock to those students who’ve had it drummed into them at A-Level. Structuring an essay this way is not wrong. It’s actually a straightforward way of producing an acceptable essay. However, it’s a really difficult way of writing really good essay. This is because it creates a number of traps – forcing you to simplify the discussion into two sides when it’s probably much more complex, and making it all too easy to avoid actually having an argument of your own until the closing sentences. No. Start with the argument and then make the case.
In fact, in my seminars I recommend students ditch the term ‘bias’ altogether. There is no person, no document (no historical witness or source) that is not biased in some way or another. Again, it’s meaningless. The problem here is that labelling a source as biased sounds like you’ve actually said something when you haven’t, making it all too easy to move on to the next point without actually having made one at all. Instead, identify the perspective from which a source is written, or from which they see events. That really can tell us something.
What happened is history (the past). How we interpret, explain and debate the cause, impact and meaning of what happened is History (the scholarly discipline). This wouldn’t be possible if all historians agreed, so there is some sense in distinguishing between the ideas and opinions of some historians and others. The problem is the obvious question it prompts: which ones? Not specifying implies historians are interchangeable, that the positions we take are random. We’re not and they’re not. This is why labelling historians as traditionalist and revisionist likewise falls short – suggesting it’s a fluke of timing. Once again this phrase only does half the job.
The objective historian is a myth. Once we recognise we are all biased commentators it can serve as a useful myth – giving license to rigorously question our own assumptions against both the available evidence and the wisdom of the crowd. This is a good thing, yet it’s often cut short by the negative connotations of bias. Labelling the premise of the historian’s assumptions should be a helpful way of engaging with their perspective on the past, but instead is often used to dismiss alternative interpretations rashly. Most typically I see this dismissal – sometimes this bluntly – to reject the arguments of feminist historians. Although I’ve never encountered this said of a male historian.
I used to use this all the time about a decade ago, and there’s no zealot like a convert. The reason as to why I turned against this unnecessary flourish is that it’s pretentious. I’ve never used it when speaking, so why when writing? It’s the over-compensating that comes from not feeling you have the authority to write about a given subject. There will always be an element of fake it ’til you make it, but this is too transparent a disguise it be any use. Good academic writing is a matter of saying complicated things as simply as possible. Decide what needs saying. Say it plainly. Then stop.
This post originally appeared on Dr George Gosling’s blog. It is reposted here under the terms of Creative Commons license BY-NC 4.0. Dr Gosling is a Historian of medicine and charity in modern Britain and beyond. Follow him on twitter @gcgosling.
Dear Sir, Madame, or Other:
Enclosed is our latest version of Ms # 85-02-22-RRRRR, that is, the re-re-re-revised revision of our paper. Choke on it. We have again rewritten the entire manuscript from start to finish. We even changed the goddamn running head! Hopefully we have suffered enough by now to satisfy even you and your bloodthirsty reviewers.
I shall skip the usual point-by-point description of every single change we made in response to the critiques. After all, it is fairly clear that your reviewers are less interested in details of scientific procedure than in working out their personality problems and sexual frustrations by seeking some kind of demented glee in the sadistic and arbitrary exercise of tyrannical power over helpless authors like ourselves who happen to fall into their clutches. We do understand that, in view of the misanthropic psychopaths you have on your editorial board, you need to keep sending them papers, for if they weren’t reviewing manuscripts they’d probably be out mugging old ladies or clubbing baby seals to death. Still, from this batch of reviewers, C was clearly the most hostile, and we request that you not ask him or her to review this revision. Indeed, we have mailed letter bombs to four or five people we suspected of being reviewer C, so if you send the manuscript back to them the review process could be unduly delayed.
Some of the reviewers’ comments we couldn’t do anything about. For example, if (as review C suggested) several of my recent ancestors were indeed drawn from other species, it is too late to change that. Other suggestions were implemented, however, and the paper has improved and benefited. Thus, you suggested that we shorten the manuscript by 5 pages, and we were able to accomplish this very effectively by altering the margins and printing the paper in a different font with a smaller typeface. We agree with you that the paper is much better this way.
One perplexing problem was dealing with suggestions #13-28 by Reviewer B. As you may recall (that is, if you even bother reading the reviews before doing your decision letter), that reviewer listed 16 works that he/she felt we should cite in this paper. These were on a variety of different topics, none of which had any relevance to our work that we could see. Indeed, one was an essay on the Spanish-American War from a high school literary magazine. The only common thread was that all 16 were by the same author, presumably someone whom Reviewer B greatly admires and feels should be more widely cited. To handle this, we have modified the Introduction and added, after the review of relevant literature, a subsection entitled “Review of Irrelevant Literature” that discusses these articles and also duly addresses some of the more asinine suggestions in the other reviews.
We hope that you will be pleased with this revision and will finally recognize how urgently deserving of publication this work is. If not, then you are an unscrupulous, depraved monster with no shred of human decency. You ought to be in a cage. May whatever heritage you come from be the butt of the next round of ethnic jokes. If you do accept it, however, we wish to thank you for your patience and wisdom throughout this process and to express our appreciation of your scholarly insights. To repay you, we would be happy to review some manuscripts for you; please send us the next manuscript that any of these reviewers submits to your journal.
Assuming you accept this paper, we would also like to add a footnote acknowledging your help with this manuscript and to point out that we liked the paper much better the way we originally wrote it but you held the editorial shotgun to our heads and forced us to chop, reshuffle, restate, hedge, expand, shorten, and in general convert a meaty paper into stir-fried vegetables. We couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have done it without your input.
1. NOT LIKE THIS…
2. ALSO NOT LIKE THIS…
3. OR LIKE THIS…
4. NAILED IT.
Mairi Young is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching why people are scared of the dentist (sort of). She is also a foodie and self-confessed junk food lover, blogging over at The Weegie Kitchen.
Campuses across the country are facing chaos today as the viral video game Pokemon Go continues to grip the student body.
Dr. Samuel Oak, a professor of zoology at Celadon University, took the drastic step of failing all of his students after they refused to pay attention in class following the release of the hit new game.
“Around the second week of class I noticed many students had stopped paying attention completely and were just staring at their phones”, he lame, “Every class has some inattentive students, but when they began walking around the room I started to get irritated”.
“One day a student pointed their phone at me and exclaimed that they had caught a Butterfree”, he explains, “I just lost it”.
Professor Elm, a biology professor at Johto University said that she had an influx of students interrupting her class on Monday asking if they were in the right place for the Magikarp giveaway.
Elsewhere campus gyms have been designated as a Pokemon gyms, resulting in a number of unfortunate accidents, while the library at Straiton City University is receiving visitors in unprecedented numbers after first year student Ash Ketchum claimed to have spotted a Pikachu in the aisles.
Pokemon Go is the latest in a string of distractions that are leaving lecturers helpless – just last year a student was marked absent after spending her class taking selfies and googling pictures of golden retriever puppies in party hats.
But Oak and others argue that this is an entirely new breed of distraction, more involved and insidious than the selfies and emojis that have previously plagued their pedagogy.
Unsure how to manage the crisis, one university is cancelling the semester altogether to allow the hype to die down.
Professor Takao Cozmo, Dean of Fallarbor University, announced the closure today in a brief statement: “We recognize that attempting to teach in this environment is pointless, so all classes are cancelled until further notice” he told the small group of journalists that were all staring at their phones.
Cosmo also announced that research efforts would be redirected to capturing and identifying all 150 of the curious creatures before cutting his speech short and rushing to the door to chase a passing Pidgey.
Abstract: “In this paper we study the financial repercussions of the destruction of two fully armed and
operational moon-sized battle stations (“Death Stars”) in a 4-year period and the dissolution of
the galactic government in Star Wars.”
Highlights: The whole thing is excellent. Estimating a “$193 QUINTILLION cost for the Death Star (including R&D)”. Concluding that “the Rebel Alliance would need to prepare a bailout of at least 15%, and likely at least 20%, of GGP1 in order to mitigate the systemic risks and the sudden and catastrophic economic collapse”.
Abstract: “The pop culture phenomenon of Star Wars has been underutilised as a vehicle to teach about psychiatry… The purpose of this article is to illustrate psychopathology and psychiatric themes demonstrated by supporting characters, and ways they can be used to teach concepts in a hypothetical yet memorable way… Characters can be used to approach teaching about ADHD, anxiety, kleptomania and paedophilia.”
Highlights: Stating that Jar Jar Binks is the “low-hanging fruit of psychopathology, serving as an easily identifiable example of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)”. Overanalysis of Luke’s familial relations.
Abstract: “We hypothesized that the physiques of male action toys… would provide some index of evolving American cultural ideals of male body image… We obtained examples of the most popular American action toys manufactured over the last 30 years. We then measured the waist, chest, and bicep circumference of each figure and scaled these measurements using classical allometry to the height of an actual man (1.78 m)… We found that the figures have grown much more muscular over time…”
Highlights: The accompanying image showing how buff Luke and Anakin became between 1978-1998. “Luke and Hans have both acquired the physiques of bodybuilders over the last 20 years, with particularly impressive gains in the shoulder and chest areas”
Abstract: “In this essay, we examined the interactions of Anakin Skywalker during moral dilemmas in the Star Wars narrative in order to demonstrate the avoidance of responsibility as a characteristic of hegemonic masculinity. Past research on sexual harassment has demonstrated a ‘‘gray area’’ that shields sexual harassers from responsibility. We explored how such a gray area functions as a characteristic of hegemonic masculinity by shielding one male, Anakin Skywalker, from responsibility for his immoral and often violent actions. Through our investigation, we found three themes integral for the construction of a gray area that helped Anakin avoid responsibility: phantom altruism, a clone-like will, and the guise of the Sith.”
Highlights: “Other characters within contemporary popular culture—such as Rambo and Jason Bourne—all avoid responsibility for any crimes or violent actions they take when confronted by moral dilemmas within their respective narrative because they all demonstrate themes similar to the three that arose in our analysis of Anakin Skywalker: (a) an altruistic past, (b) threats and deceptions that rob them of their autonomy, and (c) a dark guise that can be blamed for their most egregious actions”
Abstract: “The twin paradox states that twins travelling relativistically appear to age differently to one
another due to time dilation. In the 1980 film Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, twins
Luke and Leia Skywalker travel very large distances at “lightspeed.” This paper uses two scenarios to
attempt to explore the theoretical effects of the twin paradox on the two protagonists.”
What to do if your p-value is just over the arbitrary threshold for ‘significance’ of p=0.05?
You don’t need to play the significance testing game – there are better methods, like quoting the effect size with a confidence interval – but if you do, the rules are simple: the result is either significant or it isn’t.
So if your p-value remains stubbornly higher than 0.05, you should call it ‘non-significant’ and write it up as such. The problem for many authors is that this just isn’t the answer they were looking for: publishing so-called ‘negative results’ is harder than ‘positive results’.
The solution is to apply the time-honoured tactic of circumlocution to disguise the non-significant result as something more interesting. The following list is culled from peer-reviewed journal articles in which (a) the authors set themselves the threshold of 0.05 for significance, (b) failed to achieve that threshold value for p and (c) described it in such a way as to make it seem more interesting.
As well as being statistically flawed (results are either significant or not and can’t be qualified), the wording is linguistically interesting, often describing an aspect of the result that just doesn’t exist. For example, “a trend towards significance” expresses non-significance as some sort of motion towards significance, which it isn’t: there is no ‘trend’, in any direction, and nowhere for the trend to be ‘towards’.
Some further analysis will follow, but for now here is the list in full (UPDATE: now in alpha-order):
Summer is, sadly, over. Freshers week is, thankfully, also over. And yet another academic year kicked off with that most amusing of academic traditions: the Ig Nobel Prizes.
This year the Ig Nobels, which recognise research that “first makes people laugh then makes them think”, celebrated its 25th first annual award ceremony.
In case you’ve never heard of the Ig Nobels, they are described by singer Amanda Palmer, herself a little off-the-wall, as “a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f’d-up things…”
For a quarter-century, the Igs have been dishing out prizes for unusual research, ranging from the infamous case study of homosexual necrophilia in ducks, to the 2001 patent issued for a “circular transportation facilitation device” (i.e. a wheel).
The award ceremony takes place in Harvard’s largest theatre and resembles something akin to the Oscars crossed with the Rocky Horror Show. The lucky winners, drawn from a field of 9,000 hopefuls, are indeed presented their prize by a one of a “group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates”.
In 2010, one scientist became the first to win both an Ig and a real Nobel: Sir Andre Geim was awarded the former for his work on graphene, and the latter for levitating a frog with super strong magnets (Geim also co-authored a paper with his pet hamster, Tisha).
By the far the most bizarre this year is a study in which chickens were fitted with prosthetic tails to see if their modified gait could provide clues as to how dinosaurs walked (yes, there is a video).
Other gems this year include:
As is now the norm, the whole thing was also live-tweeted (#IgNobel). In fact, the Igs employ an “official observer” to linger on stage, head buried in smartphone, for this purpose.
Elsewhere on Twitter this week, I discovered:
I don’t always co-author papers, but when I do… pic.twitter.com/0xFP9Se3PV
— Academia Obscura (@AcademiaObscura) September 25, 2015
— UoPLibrary Penguin (@uoppenguin) September 23, 2015