Most of my days are spent editing articles by academic economists. So when I saw a book called Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, the author Michael Billig had me at the title. The book is a careful dissection of the rhetorical habits of social scientists, and in particular their tendency to banish actual people from their writing, and instead to turn everything into a string of nouns (often ending in -icity or -ization) linked with passive verbs to other strings of nouns. (If that sentence sounded ugly to you, welcome to my work life!)

I found especially thought-provoking Billig\’s argument early in the book about how the necessity for continual publications is relatively recent innovation in academic life, and how it has altered the incentives for quantity and quality of academic writing.  Here are a few of Billig\’s thoughts (citations omitted):

\”In the late 1960s, only a minority of those working in American four-year higher educational colleges tended to publish regularly; today over sixty per cent do … In 1969 only half of American academics in universities had published during the previous two years; by the late 1990s, the figure had risen to two-thirds, with even higher proportions in the research universities. The number of prolific publishers is increasing. In American universities the proportion of faculty, who had published five or more publications in the previous two years, exploded from a quarter in 1987 to nearly two-thirds by 1998, with the rise in the natural and social sciences particularly noticeable …

\”Experienced academics know that teaming up with other academics can be a means to increasing their collective output and thereby the total number of papers of which they can be credited as an author. In a field such as economics,  jointly written papers were rare before the 1970s but now they are commonplace. Journal editors, as well as those who have studied academic publishing, recognize the phenomenon of `salami slicing\’. Academic authors will cut their research findings thinly, so that they can maximize the number of publications they can obtain from a single piece of research. …

So, we produce our papers, as if on a relentless production line. We cannot wait for inspiration; we must maintain our output. To do our jobs successfully, we need to acquire a fundamental academic skill that the scholars of old generally did not possess; modern academics must be able to keep writing and publishing even when they have nothing to say. ….

As professional academics, we must extract the small nuggets of material relevant to our our interests from the mass of stuff that is being produced. Finding what we need to read necessarily means overlooking so much else. The more that is published in our discipline, the more there is to ignore. In consequence, the sheer volume of published material will be narrowing, not widening, horizons, containing us within ever smaller, less varied sub-worlds. It is important to remember that no one designed this system. There was not a moment in history when a group of powerful figures sat down in secret around a table and said: `Let us create a situation where academics have to read narrowly and to write at speed; that will stop them making trouble.\’ No secret meeting planned all this. But this is where we are now.\”

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