Academic writing

I’m taking a break from the OP course this year. Although I registered for the research project at the start of the academic year, I then immediately deferred it for a year, because otherwise I would have lost access to the library and student forums. Although the University Of London allows one to take the course over five years, its systems can’t cope with the idea that someone might not take any modules in a given year. Oh well.

I’m trying to keep my reading in the field to gather ideas for my own project, and to keep up with my classmates in the WhatsApp group that Mona set up, and learn from the experiences of others as they work towards their proposals. One thing that’s on my mind as classmates talk about how many references they should be expected to include in a 3000-word proposal, or whether in-line references are part of the word count, is the nature of academic writing in general.

I love science, I love writing, and I love good scientific writing, but the writers I admire most are more scientific educators than academics. Adam Mastroianni recently wrote about how academic incentives based on publications and citations (“publish or perish”) has also led to a perverse (my word, not his) writing style in scientific papers (via Miguel de Icaza on Mastodon):

For example, you used to be able to write a scientific paper with style. Now, in order to please reviewers, you have to write it like a legal contract. Papers used to begin like, “Help! A mysterious number is persecuting me,” and now they begin like, “Humans have been said, at various times and places, to exist, and even to have several qualities, or dimensions, or things that are true about them, but of course this needs further study (Smergdorf & Blugensnout, 1978; Stikkiwikket, 2002; von Fraud et al., 2018b)”. 

Adam Mastroianni, “The Rise and Fall of Peer Review”

He references a paper of his own, “Things could be better” (Mastroianni & Peery, 2022), which presents the results of nine rigorous studies in a very modern and informal style that tries to put the findings front and centre, without letting the language get in the way. For the purposes of reading it from start to finish, the paper is well-structured, but the difference between the article and a typical modern academic paper is like the difference between a chapter of Dickensian prose and a Twitter recap thread.

In the Research Methods module of the course we covered the “standard structure” of modern scientific papers: why they have a particular format (abstract, intro, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion) and why we shouldn’t read a paper linearly from start to finish. But, you know, I like reading a paper from start to finish. Precision and clarity of language is important, but so is acceptance and adoption.

In just about every single module of the OP course at Birkbeck the subject of the “academic-practitioner gap” comes up. I agree with Mastroianni that we can do better, and that we don’t have to sacrifice accuracy and rigour to make scientific more accessible to a wider audience. When it comes to writing, I look to people like Ed Yong at The Atlantic, and Beth Mole at Ars Technica as role models. I’d love to write my Masters dissertation in the style Mastroianni highlights, but I also want to get a good grade when I hand it in…

Additional notes:

  1. In her book Working Identity, Herminia Ibarra suggests the question, “who do you admire?” as a prompt for thinking about career direction. There are many reasons for me not to do a PhD after this Masters course, but one of them is that I just don’t aspire to continue to write in the academic style.
  2. Via Ted Pavlic on Mastodon, via Mark Rubin (source of many good links) I found another good article about clarity in academic writing: “Finding your scientific story by writing backwards” by Montagnes, Montagnes & Yang (2022). The authors discuss creating a “scientific story” by starting the writing process with results and conclusions, and working your way backwards to methodology and introduction. Going against the established order has risks as well. The old saying about needing to understand the rules before you can break them applies.

The Human Capital Hoax

Ordinary capital refers to tangible items and investments: cash, property, equipment. It can be sold, split up, moved around. Human capital is the accumulation of knowledge, skills, abilities, etc. inside a person. As such, it can’t be separated from the human in which it resides.

Human capital comes in two types: specific human capital is the set of skills that someone needs to do a specific job. (For example, knowing how to use a particular home-grown piece of software, or an idiosyncratic manufacturing process.) This is non-transferable: if the person goes to work for a different company, they can’t really take it with them. General human capital is the set of skills and abilities that an employee can take with them, and hence makes them (theoretically) more valuable to employers in a supposedly free marketplace.

So the question is: who should pay for a person to develop that general human capital, which by definition cannot be separated from the person in which they reside? Back in the 1960s, neoclassical economics said: well, duh, the person is responsible for that themselves of course. Say hello to human capital theory, the fall of free education, and the rise of the gig economy, zero-hours contracts, and out-of-control inequality.

On my course this term I’m doing the Learning & Development module! And in the first week, our lecturer Dr Rebecca Whiting dropped this paper on us: “The Human Capital Hoax: Work, Debt and Insecurity in the Era of Uberization” by Peter Fleming, which takes an axe to the whole edifice.

He stands clearly in the corner of human dignity and social equality, but he uses the tools of economics to draw a straight line from the foundations of human capital theory to the obviously flawed practical outcomes we see in the world right now: “This has allowed the genuine yearning for worker independence to be hijacked and transformed into an instrument of proletarianization”

Fuck yeah. One more quote I’m especially fond of:

“[…] a more balanced employment relationship is indispensable if self-determination is to be successfully renegotiated to create fairer life chances. […] One cannot truly express individualism, self-reliance and choice when desperately dependent on an unequal power relationship.

Fleming (2017)

It’s an academic essay, so it’s not quite a casual read, but it’s a powerful tonic when the world outside looks a bit grim.