The importance of style in academic writing

In my comments on academic cheating, I briefly discussed the question of how some of these papers could’ve been published in the first place, given that they tend to be of low quality. (It’s rare that people plagiarize the good stuff, and, when they do—for example when a senior scholar takes credit for a junior researcher’s contributions without giving proper credit—there’s not always a paper trail, and there can be legitimate differences of opinion about the relative contributions of the participants.)

Anyway, to get back to the cases at hand: how did these rulebreakers get published in the first place? The question here is not how did they get away with cheating but how is it that top journals were publishing mediocre research?

In the case of the profs who falsified data (Diederik Stapel) or did not follow scientific protocol (Mark Hauser), the answer is clear: By cheating, they were able to get the sort of too-good-to-be-true results which, if they were true, would be legitimately publishable. Stapel and Hauser used their research reputations as collateral to get the questionable results published.

The answer is also clear for two of our other cases. Ed Wegman and Frank Fischer (and, for that matter, Doris Kearns Goodwin) are mostly not in the business of performing original research. They were plagiarizing others’ work for background material, and they were not generally publishing in top journals. Rather, they were lower-tier scholars publishing in lower-tier journals. Wegman’s highest-profile plagiarism was for a congressional report; important stuff, but not subject to the sort of peer review you get a top journal.

This leaves us with the puzzle of Bruno Frey, an economist who (according to the bloggers who have written about him) has not made deep or original contributions to theoretical or applied economics but nonetheless has racked up an impressive publication record at top econ journals. The quantity of this can be attributed to his aggressive use of Arrow’s theorem, but the question remains: how did even one of each of these sets of papers get accepted for publication in this notoriously competitive field?

Earlier I conjectured that the papers by Frey et al. on the Titanic were appealing to journal editors and reviewers because of their novelty.

But here I’d like to offer a more general explanation, which is that Frey has the ability to write articles that look like published economics papers. He can write in the style, just as Salieri (for example) was able to write stuff that sounded like classical music.

I know about this because I have the ability to write things that look like statistics papers. I don’t always succeed—several of my favorite papers were rejected repeatedly before eventually appearing, often in my second- or third- or fourth-choice venue)—but, still, I can do it. I can’t really write things that look like political science papers or sociology papers, let alone economics papers. It’s just a different style, and when I’ve published in these fields, it’s almost always been with the help of a collaborator who can write in the necessary style.

Necessary but not sufficient. I’m sure that Frey’s papers, even if not particularly original, had qualities that appealed to editors and reviewers. But I suspect that style was a lot of it.

4 thoughts on “The importance of style in academic writing

  1. I don’t know if your lumping of Fischer, Kearns Goodwin, and Wegman makes sense.
    Both Fischer and Kearns-Goodwin seem to me to be quite high profile. They focus on book and not journal publications, but Kearns-Goodwin writes best-selling books, gets defended in the NYTs by some of the country’s top historians, taught at Harvard, wins prestigious awards, gets interviewed by Jon Stewart… I wouldn’t call this “low-tier” scholarship.
    Fischer has an endowed chair at a major research university and publishes and his books are out with Oxford and Duke Press and seem to get cited quite a bit – his Duke Press book has almost 1000 google scholar citations, which, admittedly, doesn’t compare to Bayesian Data Analysis (geeez…), but would still probably beat out the highest citation counts of some of your Columbia colleagues.
    I think you’ll need to come up with a better explanation than “low-tier scholar”

    • Sebastian:

      1. Doris Kearns Goodwin is different from all the others (which is why I only mentioned her in parentheses). She’s a writer, not a scholar, so the issue isn’t her stealing others’ research so much as stealing their words. I was not claiming that Goodwin’s work is “low tier,” just noting that she does not do original research.

      2. Maybe you’re right about Fischer. I’d never heard of the guy myself nor was I aware of work by any other political scientists at his university. But, yeah, I looked him up and his name is associated with lots of books, so maybe it’s just that his subfield is different from mine. I have no idea whether he does original research, nor do I know whether he claims to do research. (His webpage lists an award for “contributions to the understanding of the substance and process of public policy”—that could refer to research or to expository work.

  2. I think you are doing Salieri a disservice! He was a composer on his own right and highly successful at the time. Did you base your research on Forman’s Amaedeus?!

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