Introducting the challenge
Do you enjoy reading academic papers? I'm willing to bet that you don't. At least one pervasive reason for that is the writing. Academic writing is notoriously horrible. Of course, this is not exclusive to academic papers. As an example, consider the following two quotes. Keep in mind that I'm just here to talk about the language they use, I'm not going to interact with the ideas one way or another.
"I do not advocate inaction or deny that many (though not all) of the problems tackled by solutionists—from climate change to obesity to declining levels of trust in the political system—are important and demand immediate action (how exactly those problems are composed is, of course, a different matter; there is more than one way to describe each)."
Evgeny Morozov, "To save everything, click here".
"Modern capitalist nations are the fruit of a history of slavery, genocide, violence and exploitation every bit as abhorrent as Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Capitalism, too, was forged in blood and tears; it is just that it has survived long enough to forget about much of this horror, [..] If Marx was spared this amnesia, it was partly because he lived while the system was still in the making."
Terry Eagleton, "Why Marx was right"
I don't think that anyone talks like that naturally. This is learned behaviour. Sure writing clearly and simply isn't easy on its own, but the writing above is specifically engineered to look and sound a certain way. A way that academics expect. I am an academic, so despite my dedication to writing clearly and simply I'm sure I have written plenty of texts in this manner that are probably unreadable for laypeople. However, I care about simplicity and I want to get better at it. I think the following quote is very relevant here:
Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.
I think that is not only true for art but also science, and that's even before taking into account that sometimes science can be more art than science.. It's no accident that the number one piece of writing advice one of my supervisors has given me is "Always have a narrative".
I think it's not a controversial statement to say that, with all its splendour, science has problems. Things like the reproducibility crisis, incentives that lead researchers away from fundamental research to stuff that is merely profitable, but more relevantly to this discussion, the public distrust of experts.
Now let me be clear here, I am not an anti expert. I think education is important and a lot of the distrust that is being targeted at scientists was purposefully bred by misinformation. But let's be honest there are things that science could have done to remedy this. It doesn't help that the people who are most consistently labelled as experts are people who live in an ivory tower so high they have forgotten what a woman or a person of colour even looks like.
I think the way a lot of science is currently being done is needlessly elitist, and the language is part of that. There are parts of that that are slowly being addressed but in my opinion, this does not go far enough. We need to make science more accessible, and part of that is using more accessible language. This is not good enough. Science can and must do better.
This is not just because I believe that systemic racism or sexism is immoral, but it's also to make science better. Think of all the brilliant scientists we could have had if we didn't arbitrarily exclude large swaths of the population. Not that, but including people with experiences that we don't know about will help us come up with new solutions we couldn't even imagine existing because we didn't know it was a problem. The biggest hurdle in science is knowing which question to ask, which we can't do if we don't ask people with diverse experiences to join the conversation.
A bottom-up approach and the state of the art
Okay, so what can we do? I think that for real change to happen, you need both a top-down and a bottom-up approach. So while I do try to work to back movements who try to change things at the top, I also want to try on my own. So that is what this is. In this project, I will try to rewrite my academic work in plain English. I don't intend to change anything about the content, or difficulty or required knowledge to understand it, just the language. Part of this is just to see if I can do it. Can I still produce publishable content, but without the overly complicated language? I see it as a litmus test for whether something like this could become a movement. The other part is my attempt to add to the movement to get more people into science.
As of yet I have not rewritten any of my articles, but I am working on it. However, I hope that by putting this out there I will feel more motivated to actually get the writing done! This is going to be a long journey, and one I hope you'll join me for. In the mean time I will leave you with this quote.
One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple
Jack Kerouac, "The Dharma Bums"