Need a citation? Then make your paper harder to read

Study analysing readability and citations suggests academics may have an incentive to keep their abstracts complex

February 17, 2022
Man struggling to read book
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Undergraduates just starting university could be forgiven for sometimes thinking that an academic’s work must be worthy of a Nobel prize simply because it is impossible to understand.

But a new paper suggests that making academic writing more complex may actually be more likely to garner that crucial currency in science, a citation.

Lennart Ante, a researcher based in Germany, analysed more than 130,000 abstracts from 12 different emerging technology fields using three measures of text readability.

He found that in general the language of the abstracts appeared to become more complex as the technology areas matured, something that was consistent with previous findings on the readability of research papers.

But the results also suggested that in “almost all of the research fields considered”, articles with more complex abstracts “have a lower likelihood of remaining uncited”.

Furthermore, for some of the more mature or larger fields, the more complex the abstracts, the higher the “chances of an article being in the top 10 per cent or top 1 per cent in terms of citations”.

The study, published in the Journal of Informetrics, says that the analysis “cannot determine the extent to which citations are actually influenced by readability and the extent to which a causal relationship exists”. 

However, it says the results did suggest that scientists might have an incentive to make their writing more complex.

“If readability indeed drives citations, the results imply that scientists have an incentive to (artificially) reduce the readability of their abstracts in order to signal quality and competence to readers – both to get noticed at all and to attract more citations.” 

Dr Ante, an expert in blockchain technology who is co-founder of the Blockchain Research Lab, said he had been “fascinated” by the topic of readability while working on it for a project on blockchain start-ups.

He said it was vitally important that scientific research was “communicated in a way that is as easy to understand as possible” so people from outside a particular field could “best understand the results, interpret them, and derive actions”.

Improving readability should be one of the goals of journal editing and peer review, he said, although the paper also notes that journals may also have an incentive to keep abstracts complex if it meant citations increased.

Dr Ante added that a more fundamental problem might be “that at the current time citations have reached a worrying relevance” suggesting that science “should develop other approaches to measuring scientific relevance and contribution”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Not all that new. There is a nice and simple paper by K. Eriksson, The nonsense math effect, Judgment and decision making 7.6 (2012): 746. Been using it with grad students for years.