REF judge will give scholarly jargon a 'no' vote

Former journalist on politics subpanel will look for impact, not 'unreadable' articles, he tells Paul Jump

May 26, 2011

"To read many political science journals is to enter an enclosed and often narcissistic world of academics writing for each other...It is self-referential, as well as self-reverential, and often unreadable to anyone but a narrow group of specialists."

Peter Riddell is not the first to criticise the alleged indigestibility of much academic writing, but his position as a lay member of the politics and international studies subpanel of the research excellence framework should make academics sit up and take note.

The comments appear in a new book by the former Times journalist, In Defence of Politicians (In Spite of Themselves), and he made similar points in an interview with Times Higher Education.

"If you look at some of the leading political science journals, (you wonder) who the hell reads them. Their main concern is just getting citations in other journals."

He said that academic papers should at least contain abstracts that attempt to explain the research in everyday language. And he added that in many areas of academia - not least the humanities - there was "no reason why language should be technical" even in the main article.

Mr Riddell said he blamed academic culture for prizing opacity and had an "awful lot of sympathy" for academics who felt that they had to fill their papers with jargon, citations and footnotes in order to get them published.

Breaking that mould, he said, required "a bit of courage and a recognition that all this research is taxpayer-funded and that, therefore, there is a duty to explain it to the people who are funding it."

Mr Riddell argued that "writing in straightforward English is not dumbing down: it is arguably treating the subject seriously and recognising that there is another audience (outside academia). Political science should be enhancing our understanding of how we are governed."

He said the primary role of "research users" such as him on the REF subpanels would be to judge the impact element of submissions - which, for the first time, will count for 20 per cent of final marks.

He welcomed the impact agenda and suggested that the way in which academics had "agonised" over it was indicative of a "rather dreadful, inward-looking culture".

But he said it was too early to assess how much difference the agenda would make to scholarly practice.

He suggested that a "protective wall of jargon" was often used to disguise a lack of clear thinking, and said that the most distinguished academics were the most likely to write accessibly.

He added that there were others on the REF subpanel, as well as at the top of the Political Studies Association, who shared his views.

"I just have the advantage of being able to express my views more freely and vigorously," he said.

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