To examine how the quality of writing in academic papers affects the perceived quality of work and publication rates.
Writing Quality in Academia
The low quality of academic writing is so ubiquitous that it has become a meme. While many academics feel frustrated while reading poorly written papers, this experience does not necessarily motivate us to produce well-written papers. After all, we have many skillsets to develop and demands on our time, and learning to write well involves copious practice and individualized feedback. Research has found that this investment does not necessarily result in higher scientific impact. Further, the ubiquity of low-quality papers shows that such papers are publishable, so it’s not obvious that improving our writing will provide us with tangible benefits. To determine the tangible benefits of investing in writing quality, this paper uses a highly controlled experiment to examine the effect that writing quality has on the perceived quality of work and recommendations for accepting a paper.
Thirty papers written by PhD students in economics were judged by 18 writing experts and 30 experts in the field (i.e., conference committee members, journal editors, and journal reviewers). The experiment compared two versions of each paper: the original and a version edited for language by professional editors. The experts did not know that some of the papers had been edited, and they did not see both versions of the same paper. They rated the papers on 11-point scales for a variety of features.
Effects of Writing Quality
By all measures, writing mattered. The writing experts rated the edited papers as 10% better than the unedited papers overall. The difference between groups was 0.6 standard deviations, which is a large effect. More specifically, they found that the edited papers had a clearer key message, fewer mistakes, less superfluous language, and were easier to read, all by a margin of at least 0.5 standard deviations. Moreover, experts in the field also found the edited papers to be better overall by 5% and 0.2 standard deviations. Despite a smaller effect size, this difference translated into the edited papers judged as 8.4% more likely to be accepted for publication. As expected, these judgments scaled up or down depending on the quality of the original paper.
Why this is important
Learning to write well is a time-intensive and arduous process. In academia, writing additionally requires expressing complex ideas in a linear medium and bolstering arguments with evidence while remaining concise. It is a skill that can continue to improve over a 30-year career, yet papers written by students are held to the same standards as journal editors and program chairs.
This paper suggests that writing quality matters, especially for students. If we want to hear the perspectives and ideas from students and junior scholars, then we need to support them in improving their writing. Whether through coursework, writing groups, workshops, or professional editors, part of our responsibility as academics is to communicate effectively about our work and train the next generation of scholars to do the same.
Feld, J., Lines, C., & Ross, L (2022). Writing matters. PsyArXiv Preprint.
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