Pluralistic: 16 Mar 2022

Today's links

A red pen laying atop an edited manuscript with bold red editorial marks. The tip of the pen has a supernova flare.

The role of prose quality in scholarship (permalink)

The dominant language of science and scholarship is English, and yet native English speakers do not have a monopoly on scientific and scholarly insights. Some non-native English speakers believe this puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to acceptance in peer-reviewed journals and citations, and pay language editors to improve their prose.

But is it worth it? Does improving the quality of prose improve the perceived quality of scholarship, and with it, the likelihood of being accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals and citation in further papers? That's the subject of "Writing Matters," a new preprint paper.

The paper's authors are a Kiwi economist (Jan Feld) and two plain language specialists (Corinna Lines and Libby Ross) who run a consultancy in New Zealand. They devised an ingenious experiment to determine what benefit – if any – scholars derive from paying editors to clean up their prose.

They got a bunch of unedited economics papers written by PhD students, and had language specialists rate their prose quality, and also ran the text through a widely accepted empirical "grade level" estimator (Flesch-Kincaid). Then, the paper were edited by language specialists with no knowledge of economics (who would thus be unlikely to inadvertently improve the substantive claims in the papers).

Finally, both versions of the papers – original and edited for clarity – were judged by economists and writing experts who were divided into experimental and control groups, with one group getting the edited versions and the other getting the original. These judges weren't told that they were reading edited or raw papers, and they weren't told (until afterward) that they were participating in an experiment about the effect of prose on the perception of scholarly quality.

The results verified the commonsense conclusion: experts who reviewed the edited papers didn't just rate them as more readable – they also rated them as being better scholarship. They indicated that they would be more likely to accept the papers for conference talks and journal inclusion.

And – predictably – the papers that benefited the most were those that showed the largest improvement in their prose after being edited. That is, the worst-written papers got the largest credibility boost after they were edited.

The authors conclude that the quality of writing really matters to the careers of scholars and the impact of their scholarship, and note that English writing capability is easier for native English speakers to attain than is the case for non-native speakers. What's more, they conclude that paid language editors can erase this deficit with a relatively light edit (each paper only received six hours' worth of editorial attention).

They recommend that granting bodies concerned with improving the quality of scholarship and human knowledge create funds to subsidize scholars who want their prose improved.

All of this sounds right to me, but then, I'm a writer. Putting on my most skeptical hat, I am forced to admit that the study only concerns one discipline (economics) and a relatively small number of papers (30). Maybe these conclusions generalize to other subjects and maybe they'd be robust with a larger sample size – but that's not certain.

More interesting is the unstated corollary: bad scholarship produced by scientists and researchers blessed with good prose may be sneaking through peer-review and into citations. Perhaps there's a "glibness privilege" that bypasses the critical faculties of fellow scholars, and gives foolish and unsupported ideas currency.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago RIAA prez twirls mustache in anticipation of taking on his role of Internet Witchfinder General

#10yrsago Canadian cops want to add a spying tax to phone bills to pay for warrantless wiretapping*/

#5yrsago How Kenyan spies and cops use electronic surveillance for illegal murder and torture squads

#5yrsago Fair trade ebooks: how authors could double their royalties without costing their publishers a cent

#1yrago Meet the new music boss, same as the old music boss: Monopsony begets monoposony

#1yrago SMS security is flaming garbage

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Marginal Revolution (

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