Overcoming the 'curse of knowledge': A Q&A with Eller's Nooshin Warren on writing clarity
Nooshin Warren's research has discovered why many of us struggle when we read academic writing: The better someone knows a topic, the more difficult it can be to understand their writing. Her study, "Marketing Ideas: How to Write Research Articles that Readers Understand and Cite," also found that scholars tend to write less clearly when writing about their own research as opposed to other people's work, and that research papers written more clearly tend to be cited more often in research citation databases.
Warren, an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing in the Eller College of Management, says subject experts often communicate unclearly in part because they forget that they know more about their research than their audience.
Warren spoke with Lo Que Pasa about a phenomenon that she calls the "curse of knowledge," how it impacts scholars and non-scholars alike, and about a website that may be able to help.
Did your own experiences reading research papers as a student and as a faculty member play any part in wanting to do this research?
Yes. As a Ph.D. student, specifically a nonnative (English) speaker and writer, I had the same struggles. Naturally, at first, I attributed it to my lack of experience or expertise. But I learned this particular struggle is almost universal – not only in my field but also in almost every other area. As a researcher, I thought what I wrote was clear, but when friends would read it, they would have trouble understanding. I began thinking, do we like to write or talk in ways that no one understands to show our expertise or impress our reviewers? Among the research team, we said no, we want everyone to understand it. So this might be a bigger problem than just the four of us.
What is the "curse of knowledge" and how does it make academic writing about research difficult to understand?
It is the very sneaky reality that we think what we know is as easy for others to understand as it is for us to understand. This bias, unbeknownst to us, affects how we explain what we know to others. Because we know a lot about our topic, we don't think that it's unclear. In our research, even academics – almost all of them that we surveyed – said they at least sometimes have difficulty understanding the writing in academic journals.
What are researchers doing that results in unclear writing?
We realized that the curse of knowledge seeps into writing in different ways – abstract, technical and passive writing.
Academics and experts in certain areas tend to explain them in a more holistic and abstract way. They are less adhering to details. If you have tried teaching a skill that you have mastered – like skiing – to others, you might have this experience if you explain the move or turn as one big action instead of breaking it down to smaller movements.
Technical language is more straightforward and common to observe. People in a group or experts in an area have their own vocabularies and they tend to forget or not even realize that these words may not exist in others' vocabulary set. If you have ever talked to a physician, lawyer or a teenager you probably have noticed this issue!
The most common issue in academic writing and literature is passive voice. As an expert it is easy to know who has done what, where and when. Experts forget that others may not have this information and therefore experts write their sentences without introducing the actors of the actions. It can be the simple difference between saying "It was hypothesized" versus "Researchers hypothesized."
Although your study focused on scholarly writing, how can it apply to anyone looking to communicate a complex subject clearly?
I believe this issue applies to any subject or aspect of life, from teaching mundane skills to a toddler, to a scientist explaining the physics of a product to a design engineer.
In all aspects, we should be cognizant of this existing bias and remind ourselves of times we did not have the expertise we currently hold and do our best to explain more clearly to our audience.
How does the website your research team created, the Writing Clarity Calculator, work, and how can it help people write more clearly?
Our website has embedded data that calculates how concrete and active your writing is, and how common the language is that you use compared with the set of references the website holds. Currently this set reference contains only academic papers written in the marketing literature's top tier journals (the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Marketing Research and the Journal of Consumer Research). However, the website has the capability to expand and use the same logic for other disciplines as it gathers more references and grows. At this moment, the website is at its infancy and hopefully with the help of the American Marketing Association we will develop and expand it.
Warren's co-authors on the paper included: Caleb Warren, associate professor in the Department of Marketing; Matthew Farmer, a research associate in the Department of Marketing; and Tianyu Gu, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Utah. You can learn more about the research on the University's news website.