The Inefficiencies of Traditional Academic Writing


Most of the words in an average, considered-well-written paper are in some sense superfluous: for the right audience, you can usually boil it down to a few statements.

That’s David Bourget, associate professor in philosophy, director of the Centre for Digital Philosophy at Western University, and one of the founders of PhilPapers and its related enterprises.

Aiko Tezuka, “Fragile Surface (daydream)” (detail)

Professor Bourget was recently interviewed by Eric Piper at Wiley Humanities about his career combining philosophy and computing. In a discussion of the potential of the PhilPapers Philosophical Survey (“PhilSurvey”) and similar projects, he notes philosophers’ ignorance about the prevalence of various philosophical views:

[T]he mere publication of the data collected by PhilSurvey (without any fancy analysis) will by itself help move debates forward and improve the quality of communications. Right now philosophers are largely in the dark regarding where others stand on philosophical questions. This is something that Dave [Chalemers] and I showed with a pilot survey and an accompanying “meta-survey”, in which we asked respondents to guess the results of the main survey. We found that on average professional philosophers are off by 15% on philosophical claims. For a view that boils down to an answer to a yes/no question this could mean, for example, that the community on average believes the distribution of views is 50/50 when in fact it’s 35/65.  For many issues the discrepancy between the expected and actual distribution of views is much larger. This is problematic—in order to discuss and debate effectively, the first thing you need to know is where your interlocutors stand. For those who would like to learn more about our survey, see our paper “What do philosophers believe?” published in Philosophical Studies.

He then turns to the increase in the amount of published work and how PhilSurvey and other services might alter academic publishing:

Looking much farther down the road, I can see PhilSurvey or something else along these lines developing into a much more comprehensive service that partly replaces traditional writing and publishing (I’m looking at you Wiley-Blackwell!). To see why this might happen, you have to appreciate that we have a bit of crisis on our hands at the moment—there is far too much to read. The number of works published in philosophy over the past fifty years follows a scary accelerating curve and everyone I talk to has the feeling that too much is getting submitted and published. The crisis is most obvious on the side of journals right now because there’s been a surge in submissions that hasn’t been matched by a surge in publishing opportunities. One way or another this pressure to publish is going to continue to power a rapid increase in annual publications.

Sooner or later, we are going to be forced to re-examine how we do things and look for efficiencies. To my mind traditional publishing is hugely inefficient. Most of the words in an average, considered-well-written paper are in some sense superfluous: for the right audience, you can usually boil it down to a few statements. The audience has to know exactly how you’re using the key terms and you have to be allowed to refer to claims introduced elsewhere, but, in the right context a paper ‘s main contribution can be summarized very quickly. A lot of it is setup (background, definitions), rhetoric, and forays down the garden path of objections and replies to try to anticipate others’ thinking. PhilSurvey could become a huge “context” in which you can make major contributions very succinctly.

I know we can do this on the web because we are currently doing it over sound waves. We already have a better way of interfacing with each other’s ideas than by producing these huge blurbs of text (papers) or long monologues (talks); it’s called “conversation”. In conversation we can often make enormous progress in terms of understanding or persuading each other with minimal setup (definitions etc.). In conversation you figure out what the other thinks and tell them just what they need to hear rather than throwing at them everything you have on the oft chance that something will stick. Obviously there are obstacles to scaling conversation to thousands of people—we all know what sort of mess an online “conversation” can be (look at reddit)—but ordinary conversation is a useful model in some respects. It shows us how to use context to save on words, and it’s not very hard to see how written interactions could be made more conversation-like in this respect. On the web, we make all the background that’s relevant to a compact claim (definitions, other claims, etc.) immediately accessible to provide context. There is no reason why a point should always be delivered as part of a big blurb of text that includes some often distorted version of the relevant context.

The whole interview is here.


Related: “2,000 Spaces for 10,000 Papers: Why Everything Gets Rejected & Referees Are Exhausted“; “A Plea for More Short Journal Publications

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Richard Y Chappell
1 year ago

Indeed! That’s one reason I’d like to see more (substantive) philosophy blogging. It’s extremely rare for me to read a paper without thinking, “This would have been better as a blog post.” (This is also true of my own papers, most of which do in fact begin life as blog posts.)Report

Matt
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
1 year ago

Hmmm…while agreeing that a significant number of papers are too wrong, I think I disagree with this claim, at least in general. I’d say that it’s rare that I read a “substantial” blog post where I don’t think that there is a lot that is left out, over-simplified, questions begged, etc. in a way that could really only be addressed in a paper. Of course, you can keep making a blog post longer, but then, the difference between it and a paper start to blur. Blogs are often good for first passes at a topic, or raising them, but they rarely seem like a substitute to the sort of care and depth that a good paper has. Report

Matt
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

Ah – I should say that, while it’s also the case that a significant number of papers are “too wrong”, what I’d meant to say is that a significant number are “too long”, since that’s the topic that’s relevant here! Report

Marcus
Marcus
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

Couldn’t the fact that a blog post will (of necessity) leave out stuff that should get discussed just open up an avenue for philosophical discussion?
If you notice a blog post that (for instance) “begs the question” then you could write your own post about that. The original author (or a new entry into the debate) could then respond, etc.

Of course, I say all of this while also believing that Richard’s dream is heavily disincentivized in the current climate so unlikely to occur. No one gets tenure off of blog posts.Report

Matt
Reply to  Marcus
1 year ago

At least so far, I have rarely seen blog posts be good sites for philosophical discussion, though of course there are some exceptions. It does seem to require heavy moderation, and lots of devotion of time. Lots of times, though, it’s not a good use of time. So, if I see someone writing blog posts that I think are bad, I could spend my time trying to show why. But, even leaving aside the fact that there’s no academic credit in that, it’s likely to be a bad use of my time. (It would be a better use of everyone’s time if the blog author would just do a better job in the first place – like writing a real paper!) And, even if we want to assume that blogs are just using enthymematic arguments and not begging the question very often, this is going to be unhelpful, and often harmful, for people who don’t know the territory. So, while I agree that blogs are often good for raising issues and getting a discussion going, they seem like very bad substitutes for journal articles to me, at least in most cases.

Also, blogs are ephemeral. The get deactivated, disappear, lose hosting, etc. On-line only journals have to take serious steps to make sure they are at least semi-robust, and it’s still not clear they will be. If large parts of serious philosophy moved to blogs, it would be very bad for future generations.

(Of course, there are already journals that specialize in short articles, and other journals will publish them. If an argument can be made in a short form, that’s great – people should do that and send it to Analysis or Ratio or Think or whatever.)Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
1 year ago

“ everyone I talk to has the feeling that too much is getting submitted and published.”

Am I alone in disagreeing? People often seem to think that because there is more work than they can read, there’s too much being produced. It’s a pretty self-centred (literally – I do not mean this as moral criticism) view. If you think that knowledge is social and not individual, you might celebrate its production while being a little sad you can’t ever read more than a small proportion. Report

Paul Barry
Paul Barry
Reply to  Neil Levy
1 year ago

I take the concern to be not that there is too much for any individual to read, but that with so many publications it is inevitable that many are read by only a few people or by none at all (aside from reviewers). I don’t know how many journal articles fall into that category, but if it’s a lot (and if the % is increasing) then it seems like a problem: all that time and effort invested in work that goes unread once published.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Paul Barry
1 year ago

That’s a potential problem indeed. I am not aware of any evidence its true, though. The oft-repeated claim that many academic papers are never read by anyone other than reviewers seems to be an academic urban legend.

https://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-It-Really-Be-True-That/243564Report

Paul Barry
Paul Barry
Reply to  Neil Levy
1 year ago

Yeah, some of the outlandish claims about the number of scholarly papers that are not read by anyone have a whiff of urban legend about them.

Even so, there remains a question as to whether the “accelerating curve” in the number of published works is matched by a similar increase in the number of articles that get read in a given year. I can’t be sure, but if I were to guess I’d say the answer is probably ‘no’. If that’s right, then it seems to encourage the inefficiency-related concerns that Bourget raises.
Report

David Bourget
Reply to  Neil Levy
1 year ago

I can help with that question!

The median number of download clicks logged on PhilPapers (either going to an external site or to our archive) for online journal articles is 9—surprisingly close to that unsupported guess of 10 discussed in the Chronicle article!

Obviously, we’re the not the only source of downloads, but we originate a significant proportion of them, and you have to take into account the fact that many of the download clicks we register do not convert into reads (a good number are from bots and some are from people that won’t end up reading the paper). Keeping this in mind, it seems to me that the 10 figure is plausibly roughly correct.

The fact is that downloads are massively skewed toward a small set of articles: about half of the downloads for the 1.4M online articles we index are for the 64,000 most downloaded papers.

Anyways, Paul is right that what I had in mind was mainly that the publishing effort is wasted to some extent, not that I am personally disappointed I can’t read it all. I was thinking that the effort could probably be better used, for example, to contribute to more efficient research communications. Relatedly, I was also thinking that too much is being submitted and published in that current processes for handling submissions and publications (the way we review submissions, the way we discover material to read) are breaking down under the weight of all this text. Report

to Neil
to Neil
Reply to  Neil Levy
1 year ago

Here’s a go at an argument.

Too much is getting submitted…

for the peer-review system to handle efficiently. An inefficient peer-review system is a bad thing, so we have a reason to want to reduce the number of submissions.

Too much is getting published…

and one effect of this is the publication arms race we see at several levels of the profession. These arms races are bad because they often take away from other important goods, such as 1) writing a sufficiently systematic dissertation, 2) doing work whose publication requires more than a few drafts that one presents at a few conferences, and 3) which leads, in many cases if not all, to narrow-minded technicians as the philosophical standard.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
1 year ago

“This is problematic—in order to discuss and debate effectively, the first thing you need to know is where your interlocutors stand.”

Yes, we need to know where our interlocutors stand. But knowing what truth-value they assign to some ism they had to choose from a menu succeeds only generating the illusion of knowing where they stand. Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
1 year ago

The surveys also have a bunch of alternative answers such as “the question is too vague to answer”, “some intermediate view”, “more than one”, and “none”. Granted, this won’t help in cases where the ism is so vague that different philosophers have different definitions *and* are each confident that they have the only reasonable definition of the ism in mind. This seems to be true for platonism and nominalism, imo. There are nominalists who acknowledge that there are numbers but deny that they exist, which tends to annoy the living bejezus out of platonists who take the two claims to be equivalent.Report

Setter Upper
Setter Upper
1 year ago

I often find setup and definitions useful. I see value not just in grasping a paper’s main contributions but also in situating these contributions against existing knowledge (hopefully not just against a menu of trendy isms). Setup and definitions are important parts of this, in philosophy and in the sciences. Furthermore, it’s in these parts of paper that “the received view” is carefully stated. And it’s important that non-specialists be able to reliably determine received views by reading work in peer-reviewed venues.

On the other hand, I’d like to hear more about the kind of efficiency Bourget thinks shorter forms could achieve. Is it greater efficiency in the grasping of small sets of propositions? I’m not sure that, beyond a certain point, this kind of grasp of further propositions has much marginal utility. If efficiency in this comes at the cost of a less systematic understanding (of our “total theory” and of the statements’ place in it), would it be worth it? I wonder if a better solution would be to better train grad students in writing more useful and succinct setups.Report

Setter Upper
Setter Upper
Reply to  Setter Upper
1 year ago

One other solution to consider (assuming there’s a problem to solve), is to submit less work for publication. This is, of course, easier for some than others. But while some submissions are driven by career needs, some are surely driven by social comparison (such-and-such friend from grad school has x publications in journals ABC; I need more!). That’s been the case for me. If we really become aware of this and compare it to what we know to be valuable in philosophy, we might be able to slow down the journal submissions and share our work in more varied contexts: blogs, face-to-face, or not at all.Report

A Tenured Philosopher
A Tenured Philosopher
1 year ago

“Most of the words in an average, considered-well-written paper are in some sense superfluous: for the right audience, you can usually boil it down to a few statements. The audience has to know exactly how you’re using the key terms and you have to be allowed to refer to claims introduced elsewhere, but, in the right context a paper’s main contribution can be summarized very quickly.”

The proposal to publish mini-papers, squibs (a term used in linguistics to refer to very short papers), PhilTweets, or whatever you call them should be evaluated against the backdrop of hyperspecialized philosophical research. And once we do that, it’s not totally clear to me whether the proposal is a helpful one.

Suppose an author boils down what would have been her 10K word article to “a few statements” and blasts a PhilTweet into cyberspace. Won’t this chunk of information be mostly meaningless to all but a few researchers in her microsubfield? These mini-papers won’t be of any interest to lots of researchers in philosophy, though you can imagine that certain mini-papers would grab attention among people who do not work in the relevant area. (Would you reveal your politics by “liking” or re-PhilTweeting stuff that expresses your own opinions, even if you don’t know a damn thing about social/political philosophy?)

So, here is my concern: an important question is whether our field should press forward toward more and more hyperspecialized philosophical research. The proposal seems to move us further down that road, if we are publishing fewer standalone papers and more PhilTweets. But is this going to help current PhD students, the vast majority of whom will not end up with stable academic positions after graduation? Is this good for the status of our discipline within the academy? Could this system of publishing help researchers in cognate fields who might gain from the kind of insights philosophers can produce on particular topics? I can see some reasons to say “Maybe not” in response to such questions. As far as I can tell, shifting to publishing mini-papers could easily amplify some of the most pressing problems the profession faces. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  A Tenured Philosopher
1 year ago

This seems right to me. But It seems right that a mature field should incorporate both sorts of work, just as we have both books and papers, and both thoroughly interdisciplinary thinkers and thoroughly disciplinary ones. The thoroughly disciplinary work could likely be done more concisely (especially if it is not just thoroughly within the discipline, but thoroughly within one cottage industry within one specialty of one subfield of the discipline) while the more interdisciplinary and bridging work would need to be more expansive and explanatory (and likely more so than it is currently).Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

I think that publishing has become ritualized as a way to advance, to the point where too many philosophers don’t ask themselves what the ultimate point is, why society should bother paying for professional philosophers, and what philosophers might do with the time they save if they didn’t publish so much.

To my mind, the point of professional philosophy is to help people who aren’t professional philosophers to think through philosophical issues for themselves. You may disagree. But it seems to me that deciding what the ultimate point is necessary for deciding how to go about doing the job.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

Yes. Just . . . yes.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

As long as you remember that some of those people who aren’t professional philosophers that need to think through philosophical issues for themselves are physicists that need to think about the measurement problem for quantum mechanics, or psychologists who need to think about whether particular experiments say anything about free will, or economists that need to think about whether Pareto improvements of revealed preferences are valuable, or art historians that need to think about when a reproduction of a work of art is an independent work of art.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

Easwaran. Absolutely! I hope that my post didn’t suggest that I thought otherwise.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

Right now there’s some paleontologist researching some specific species of dinosaur that I and most other people will never hear about, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s good for humanity if we can build up our collective knowledge of cool factoids (or in the case of philosophy, interesting arguments), even if very few people ever bother to read up on them and they have no practical benefits and don’t maximize the total balance between pleasurable and displeasurable mental states in the world. Granted, we should prioritize things like cancer research first, but not exclusively so. Plus, philosophy is pretty cheap by comparison.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  YAAGS
1 year ago

@YAAGS. I’m all for the collection of information, including information with no immediately obvious use or interest. After all, you never know what information will end up being useful or interesting.

I think that public spending on philosophical information gathering is justified, even when the answers to philosophical questions have no obvious use and generate little interest outside of philosophy. I think this because you never know what information will end up being of use, or of interest outside philosophy.

However, I don’t think the mere fact that someone somewhere knows something, even something very important, is in itself a public good. At the very least, the knowledge needs to be available to other people who might find it useful or interesting. To do people who are not professiona philosophers good, philosophers generally have to get their ideas out to those people.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

It’s not that someone somewhere knows it. It’s that we build up a collective body of knowledge by funding research, and this is one of our cultural achievements. No different in kind from building a monument or going to the moon.Report

David Bourget
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

I agree. That’s basically what I was trying to say in the interview when I said (apologies for the self-citation) that “a complete resolution of a philosophical question would be an artifact (presumably made mostly of text with added structure) that any intelligent person can use to convince themselves rationally of the correct answer. The end point is much less important than the ability of the artifact to guide anyone there.” Report

Nicole
Nicole
1 year ago

This sounds similar to Stolnitz’s argument against the philosophical content of literature: claiming that it can be summarized in a few sentences and is therefore not particularly interesting.

But my counter argument has always been, just because you can summarize something, doesn’t mean the summary does adequate justice to the whole text. I could summarize Plato’s Republic as “smart people should rule,” or Regans “In Defense of Animal RIghts as “non-human animals have rights too” etc etc. But those aren’t, without elaboration, necessarily strong or persuasive arguments.

If there does exist a large collection of philosophical literature which is too verbose that actually can be adequately and fully expressed in a tweet, that’s just bad writing and bad philosophy and shouldn’t be published at all.

I think we do need the huge amount of literature that supposedly few people will read, because, guess what? I –and I assume I’m not the only scholar– do sometimes need to search for something hyper-specialized to make my own cases. I need that paper about the various ways Kant’s “public philosophy” can be translated and understood. I need that paper about the animal rights symbolism in the Moby Dick scene where the mom-whale gets harpooned. etc etc.

And finally, I also agree that lots of that potentially “unecessary” verbiage is actually quite necessary for those uninitiated in a hyper-specialized field. Like, with my Kant example above, I’m not able to become a linguistic expert, but I need the necessary background information of the relevant aspects of that field to understand the basic arguments being presented.Report