How Bad Is Academic Writing, Really?

15 May 2006 at 5:31 pm 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Few social scientists are known for their lucid and elegant prose. Frank Knight or Joseph Schumpeter, perhaps. Most academic writing, however, is just plain awful: dull, pedantic, full of jargon and unnecessarily complex words and phrases, generally painful to read. Most manuscripts in organizational economics and strategy should come with a warning: “Do not operate heavy machinery after reading.”

How bad is it, exactly? Can bad writing be quantified? Yes, according to a new (to me, anyway) feature from Amazon.com. For some books — those for which Amazon offers the “Search Inside” feature — Amazon now provides several objective measures of readability. These include the Fog Index, the Flesch Index, and the Flesch-Kincaid Index, which estimate “how easy it is to read and understand the text of a book.” You also get the percentage of “complex” words (those with three or more syllables), average syllables per word, and average words per sentence. There’s also a neat visual concordance (a list of the 100 most frequently occurring words in the book, arranged alphabetically but with font sizes corresponding to frequency). And just for fun you get “words per dollar” and “words per ounce.”

So, in the spirit of objective scientific inquiry, I looked up the readability scores for some important works in management and organization. Here they are, ranked by Fog Index (lower is better):

Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: 17.4
Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy: 18.1
Williamson, Economic Institutions of Capitalism: 18.4
Porter, Competitive Strategy: 19.5
Chandler, Strategy and Structure: 20.2
Penrose, Theory of the Growth of the Firm: 21.0

Interesting. Williamson, often chided for having a clumsy writing style, fares better than Porter, Chandler, and Penrose. (To check the robustness of my results, I pulled up a few presumed outliers. Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, as expected, scores a delightful 15.5. Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness is pretty bad at 20.1 – though only middle of the pack for our group.)

I invite readers to explore this new technology and to share additional results and interpretations. I have no doubt several verbometric dissertations are in progress at this very moment.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. teppo  |  16 May 2006 at 12:31 am

    Hmm, an interesting tool, though frankly as I briefly checked a couple of books using the amazon ‘tool’ – it really told me nothing. Well, it may indeed be that I have simply been socialized into reading poor writing – I remember commenting to my class of MBAs that a particular ASQ piece I had assigned for them to read (I know, I know – I felt sorry for them) was well-written – they were aghast to hear that.

  • 2. brayden  |  16 May 2006 at 1:41 pm

    You know you need to retake freshman composition if you have a worse readability score than Derrida.

  • 3. Michael E. Marotta  |  13 June 2009 at 5:49 pm

    This is not rigorous, but as _The Cliches of Socialism_ was cited, I went to Archives.com and cut three to test them against my Word Tools Flesch Reading Ease and Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level.

    Paul L. Poirot. “The size of the government doesn’t matter because we owe it to ourselves.”
    Reading Ease 47.2 Grade level 12.0

    Murray N. Robthbard. “Why, you’d take us back to the horse and buggy.”
    Reading Ease 38.0 Grade level 12.0

    Leonard E. Read. “The Shylock! He charges all the market will bear.”
    Reading Ease 46.9 Grade level 11.8

  • 4. Ryan Langrill  |  15 April 2012 at 7:52 pm

    I know this is a dead thread, but I wanted to leave a thought anyways.

    Bibliographies tend to mess with reading comprehension measures – if I rate my paper without my bibliography it drops a couple grades in reading comprehension. Might be worth thinking about when comparing books that might have different size bibliographies.

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