The Impact of Bad Writing in Economics

By Laband, David N.; Taylor, Christopher N. | Economic Inquiry, October 1992 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Bad Writing in Economics


Laband, David N., Taylor, Christopher N., Economic Inquiry


"Bad writing does not get read."

--Donald McCloskey(1)

"Technical considerations of publications are at least equally as important in judging the worth of scientific information as the end goal of adding to the existing body of scientific knowledge."

--Janet Chase(2)

I. INTRODUCTION

In his lead article in Economic Inquiry |1985~, Donald McCloskey lambasts economists about their rotten professional writing. He believes that the economics profession would be better off if we all wrote "better." Interestingly, in an equally hard-hitting article published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1969, Walter Salant took economists to task for their poor writing. He led off his presentation by noting:

In the past several months I have spent much time reading manuscripts written by my professional colleagues. Although this activity has taught me some economics, as one might expect, it has not been an unmixed pleasure. At some times, to be frank, it has been rather trying.

What has made it trying is that too much of the writing I have read is clumsy or worse: nearly incomprehensible. Crimes of violence are committed daily against the English language and the helpless reader is too often frustrated in his effort to understand the message |545~.

In the scientific community clarity and conciseness of writing style are regarded as valuable aspects of an individual's effort to convince others of the validity of a knowledge claim. Chase |1970~ reports that academic scientists rate clarity and conciseness of writing style the third most important criterion used to evaluate the merit of other scientists' research. The ten criteria chosen from included, among other things, originality, logical rigor, theoretical significance, mathematical precision and replicability of research technique.

The prominence accorded to McCloskey's article and the appearance of Salant's article in arguably the most influential journal published in the economics profession is notable. Journal editors apparently concur with the basic message expressed by both authors: the writing style of academic economists leaves much to be desired.

We find it difficult to disagree with the notion that how you say what you say matters. Knowledge is a commodity that is demanded and supplied in a market; basic marketing principles surely apply. But Salant's reference to readers being "helpless" is as ludicrous as suggesting that sellers force consumers, via advertising, to purchase their products. Consumers (of all commodities) are neither stupid nor helpless. The market for literature, both professional and otherwise, is characterized by free entry and exit. Nothing compels prospective readers to purchase specific literature or to consume (read) it fully once purchased. Any reader continually makes marginal decisions about whether to continue reading. These decisions are presumably based upon an ongoing evaluation of the expected benefits of continued reading as compared to the expected costs. Whenever the former fall below the latter, the reader stops. How the individual's expectations regarding costs are formed is open to speculation. The average difficulty a reader has experienced in the past with an author's work (be it an altogether different publication or previous pages in the current work) probably forms, in part, the basis for his expectation of the costs of continuing to read.

This suggests that each author is residual claimant to the negative effects of his prose. A necessary condition for acceptance of a knowledge claim is that the virtues of that claim become known by individuals other than the author. To become widely known, the claim must be read by at least some members of the relevant academic community. The discoverer of a significant scientific breakthrough who communicates poorly the virtues of his work incurs a loss derived from reduced professional acceptance of his ideas.

Given the results of Chase's survey, authors may, on average, improve their chances of manuscript acceptance at professional journals by attending to elements of presentation. …

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