Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Beyond the Elevator Speech

In the last post, I talked about the "elevator speech" and why it's important to have one.  I described an experience that made me realize few students are trained to explain their research in terms that the average person can understand and appreciate.  Such an ability is not only good for an individual scientist (e.g., making a good impression on a potential employer or talking to the press), but it's good for science and the public's impression of scientists.  When scientists are unable to explain their work in everyday terms or relate it to the average person's experience, then the public may conclude that the research area is esoteric or not relevant to them.

During fieldwork, I've frequently come into contact with the public.  I've been approached by local fishermen, land managers, tourists, and various bystanders who ask what I'm doing and why.  I always take the time to talk to them and explain the importance of my work.  And I always answer carefully because you never know when the questioner might be someone of influence (member of Congress, local politician, land owner), which has happened to colleagues.  I'm especially circumspect if they happen to be armed (which has occurred to me a few times).  

I was confident about myself, but wondered about my research group.  So a number of years ago I decided to test them to see what they might say to a member of the public about our work.  I routinely held lab meetings and required semi-annual progress reports by group members.  Each person (student, technician, post-doc) would get up and give a short presentation about their project, and then I and other team members would ask questions or provide constructive criticism.  At one of these progress reviews, I told the group that I wanted to do something slightly different.  After the last person's presentation, I said, "OK. You've explained your work in terms that we understand.  I want you to pretend that you are out in the marsh doing your research and a local fisherman has stopped you and asked what you are doing.  How would you explain your work in everyday language?"

Well, you can probably guess what happened.  If you read the last post, you may have guessed that everyone proceeded to spout off an incomprehensible explanation, even more convoluted and abstruse than their scientific presentation.  It was as if the challenge of explaining things to a non-specialist caused a brain malfunction.  This outcome turned out to be highly entertaining, and before long, we were all in stitches.  The succeeding speakers, who had laughed uproariously at the first person's attempt, did no better.  The more they tried to explain, the worse it got.

Despite the hilarity, I was horrified at what my team might be saying to members of the public they encountered in the course of their work.  At the end of the meeting, I told the group that I wanted them to think about this and by the next progress review to have a short, simple explanation of their work to present to the group.

I could see that they all expected a repeat of the first exercise:  to stand up and say a couple of sentences.  They would be ready for problem.  So I came up with a slightly different plan.  I enlisted the help of one of the administrative staff, a woman who agreed to dress up and act like a local fisherwoman, which would create a more realistic situation.  When the next progress meeting convened, I asked the group if they had their speeches ready.  They all eagerly responded that they were ready and confident.  I told them that I had invited a local fisherwoman to help with the exercise.  A few of them looked stunned, but soon began laughing when they saw it was a staff member.

However, she played her part perfectly.

When the first person started explaining their project on sea-level rise, she immediately interrupted and said she did not understand what sea-level rise was.  Did they mean vitamin C?  She proceeded to ask questions of each speaker, forcing them to explain unfamiliar terms and asking why they were studying those particular topics.  She soon had everyone flustered and stammering.  It was another eye-opening experience.  Whereas the first exercise revealed the lack of a good elevator speech, the second one showed that just having a canned elevator speech is not sufficient in a real world situation, with real people who ask difficult questions.

Some of my research group really liked the exercise and went on to become quite good at explaining their science to lay audiences.  Others were less enthusiastic and did not seem to understand the reason or the need for the exercise.  My goal was to get them (and me) to start looking at our research from an outsider's viewpoint and how best to explain it.  Turns out, it is very difficult to forget what we know about a topic and see it through the eyes of the non-expert.  

How good are you at explaining your work?  How do you know?  A good place to start is with your friends and family (assuming they are not in science).  You can not only practice on them, you can ask for their feedback as to how you are doing.  At family gatherings or similar events, you will run into people who will ask what you've been doing lately.  You can then try out your elevator speech, tailored for the non-specialist.  If your speech is short and intriguing, it will stimulate questions.  With experience, you'll learn what works and what doesn't.  You'll eventually develop responses appropriate for different situations and audiences.

Then, when you run into that Important Scientist or Potential Future Employer at a conference and she asks you about your work, you will know exactly what to say.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Your Elevator Speech

I've mentioned what is known as an "elevator speech" previously in the context of having a short description of a presentation you might be giving at a conference. I suggested that it would be worthwhile to have a one or two sentence description of your presentation to use in conversations during mixers or in the event you meet a potential employer or representative of a funding agency.

Having a well-thought-out speech that describes your work in brief, clear, simple terms is essential in a fast-paced, short-attention-span world. Most people, particularly those outside your area of specialty, are not going to want to listen to you hem and haw about what your work is all about. Few people are able to provide an off-the-cuff description of a complex topic in a way that the non-specialist will fully understand or appreciate. The rest of us need to plan and practice.

I recall distinctly when the idea of an elevator speech occurred to me (although I did not think of it in exactly those terms and had never heard that phrase before). I was working as a research associate and was returning from a field trip with a professor and one of his graduate students. It was late, around 9:00 pm, and we were passing through a swampy area locally known as a popular dumping ground for serial killers, when our vehicle suddenly conked out. There was little traffic, and in any case, no one was going to offer assistance to three scruffy looking people dressed in old, muddy clothes. We were about six miles from the next populated area likely to have a telephone (this was way, way before cell phones). It took us a couple of hours, but we finally made it to a public telephone and called a tow truck.  Once we got our vehicle hooked up, we all piled into the tow truck cab and headed back to campus.

During the drive, the tow truck driver asked us where we were coming from and what we were doing out in that area.  The professor explained that we were from the university and were returning from a field trip to conduct some research.  The driver then asked what kind of research.  The graduate student, who was quite full of himself, launched into a description of his research project, which was the reason for our field trip.  He explained that we were studying "anaerobic metabolism in Species name" and proceeded to talk about enzyme assays, adenine nucleotides, and various soil chemistry parameters.  You can imagine the puzzled look on the tow truck driver's face.  The professor just shook his head and  said, "We are trying to understand why our coastal wetlands are disappearing."  The truck driver flashed him a look of relief and said, "Oh, right. Now I understand.  That's really great what you are doing.  I do a lot of fishing at the coast and know that the marshes are really important."

That interaction stuck with me.  In the next post, I'll describe how I tried to train my own staff and students in the art of talking to non-specialists.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How to Create a Research Brief

In the last post, I talked about factors that may (or may not) increase the citations of your papers.  Some of the bibliometric studies report correlations that have led to dubious recommendations about how an individual researcher can increase their own citation rate.  For example, one study found a correlation between numbers of references in a paper and the subsequent citations that paper garners.  A Nature News article took that finding and suggested that researchers might improve their citation rate by including more references in their papers. Such strategies rarely work because the observed relationship may not be due to cause and effect and, in any case, reflects statistical outcomes involving thousands of papers.

So what does work?  In this post, I'll be talking about some strategies that are more likely to attract attention to your publications and that simultaneously provide other benefits.

Why Worry About Citations?

But first, some of you may be wondering why anyone would worry about how many citations they have.  Citations provide an indication, along with other metrics such as the h-index, about what impact your work has on your field of science. Citations are important because most search committees and tenure review panels use citation information (e.g., in Thompson-Reuter's ISI Web of Science or Google Scholar Citations) to assess a candidate's credentials and potential for success.  Whether you like it or not, think citation metrics are valid or not, they will likely be used at some point in your science career to assess your qualifications for a future job or promotion.  Not knowing your citation rate or h-index is like a student not knowing their GPA.  Without that information, you have no way of gauging how you stack up against the competition or how much you may need to improve.

As long as review panels emphasize such metrics, we will have to be at least cognizant of, if not proactive about, our citations.  Being proactive does not mean trying to "game" the system, as some of the bibliometric studies seem to suggest.  Instead, it's much better to seek valid ways to promote the visibility of your work, which will lead people to your publications and hopefully to cite them.  I'm going to take the results of one of these bibliometric studies and show how you can take the concept and apply it in a more useful way to promote your work.

Some evidence suggests that open-access papers garner more citations than papers requiring a subscription to access.  The implication is that when more people can easily acquire and read your paper, the more likely they are to cite something in that paper.  However, many scientists lack the funds to pay for open-access for all their publications.  Some may think that a less expensive option is to offer their papers as pdfs on their personal websites.  There are two problems with this option.  First is that it's unlikely that your website (and your papers) will show up on the first page of an internet search of your topic of research, unless you are working in a really obscure field.  Second, and more importantly, unless you have the journal publisher's permission, posting pdfs of your published papers on your website  is copyright infringement.  When you signed that copyright agreement with the publisher of the journal, you gave over that right to the publisher.

Is there anything else you can do to attract attention to your papers, perhaps increasing citations of your work?  The answer is yes.  Some people post the unformatted manuscript version on their own website or in an article repository.  Through these versions, others can access the content of the work without paying the subscription fee to the journal.  However, there is another way, which is the topic of this post.

A Better Idea

You can create an attractive, informative, and interesting brief, which describes the essence of a paper, along with some key photographs or other images.  The image above illustrates an example of a template I've used to create a one-page brief for a number of my past publications.  I used Pages, which is an Apple application, to create this template, but PC users can use Microsoft Publisher or a similar program.  These applications have a number of templates to choose from and come in a range of visually pleasing designs.  They are very easy to use and to modify for your purposes.  They can be one pagers or more, but generally shorter is better.

The briefs that I've created for my publications typically contain the abstract or a summary of the paper along with a sentence or two stating the take-home message plus several photographs or figures.  Note that it's important not to use any graphs or other figures from the published paper unless you get permission from the publisher.  However, I've found it easy to pick one of the many unpublished photos or other images from my media library to illustrate my briefs.  Most journals will allow an author to post the abstract of a paper on their website because these are usually publicly available anyway (as long as you provide the journal citation along with the abstract).  So adding the abstract to your brief is usually acceptable (however, if you are not the author, using an abstract this way is not advisable).  If you think using the abstract verbatim might be challenged by a publisher or is just too technical, then it's relatively easy to write another, less technical summary.  Within the brief, I provide the citation information and create a hyperlink to the journal page where the full paper is published.  I also include links to my websites and my email address where someone can contact me for a reprint of the technical paper.

Click on the above image to see the additional instructions for creating a brief with this template.

You may be thinking that this is a lot of effort that takes too much time.  However, I found that once I created the template, that I could complete a research brief in five to ten minutes, depending on how long it took me to find appropriate photographs.  The process involved four steps:

1. I find three photographs to illustrate the paper (you might choose to show only one photo).  I have an extensive media library of photographs I've accrued over the past 40 years, so there's no problem with choices.  I usually only need to modify the size of the image so that the brief is not too large.  Then, the images can be dragged and dropped into the photo placeholders.  This takes only a few minutes.

2. I add the paper title, authors, and journal citation in the appropriate places (along with the hyperlink).  A couple of minutes.

3.  I copy and paste the paper's abstract into the main text box and resize to fit. Another minute or two.

4.  I then think of a sentence or two to summarize the significance of the work or the take-home message and type that into the appropriate text box.  That may take a few minutes.

And that's it.

Once the brief is finished, it can be exported as a pdf or jpg, which can then be posted on a personal website.  I've created briefs for around twenty of my recent publications and posted these on my professional profile website.  On the webpage where my publications are listed, I've put a thumbnail of the research brief alongside the relevant citation.  When the viewer clicks on the thumbnail, the brief opens up in a high resolution image that can be read online.  I also provide a link that allows the brief to be downloaded as a pdf.

What Are the Advantages?

The beauty of this approach is that images or pdfs (as opposed to text) can get your brief listed higher on a search engine ranking.  For example, if there are a lot of text-based listings for the topic of your research, your paper is likely listed on page 41 of a Google search.  On the other hand, if there are no or only a few images associated with your research topic, then your brief (posted as a jpg file) will more likely show up on the Google Image page.

Even if you don't want to go to the effort of creating a research brief for every one of your journal articles, just posting a thumbnail photo alongside each text citation will get your work noticed by search engines looking for images about a topic.  You want to be sure, however, to include appropriate keywords in the file name as well as any other tags or alternate titles associated with that image so that Google can associate it with you and your research.

Another idea is to post an image of a conference poster, which offers similar information as your publication, but in a non-copyrighted format.  You can create a one-page flyer, similar to the ones people often offer as poster take-aways, and add it as a thumbnail image next to the journal citation in your publication list.  Because it is visual and clickable, people will have immediate access to the key information that is in the journal publication.  Again, you want to include somewhere on the poster image a link to the journal article, your professional website, and email address.

By the way, videos about your research are very effective in getting a high ranking by search engines, especially when your topic has mostly text-based listings.  I've created and posted several videos about my research on YouTube and professional multimedia galleries.  When a search is conducted for the topic of my research, the Web listings do not include links to any of my technical papers on the first page, but the only videos listed on the topic are mine and show up on the first page of a Google search.  So anyone (especially students) searching for information on the topic of my research will see the link to my video, likely click on it (because it is visual and potentially interesting), and ultimately be led to my technical papers, which are listed at the end of the video and in the text description accompanying the video.  On my webpage listing of publications, I have a link to these videos alongside those relevant citations.  At this point, so few scientists use videos to describe their work, that this strategy will put you in a league of your own.

The feedback I've gotten, especially from students, is that they really like these one-page summaries and videos. They bring the dry, sometimes esoteric, information in the technical paper alive. The photos and video footage appeal to the current generation of students who are accustomed to acquiring their information from audiovisual media.  They obviously appeal also to visual learners and to those students and scientists in other fields who want to know more about a topic, but not enough to read the technical paper.

So in addition to making your publications more visible to those likely to cite it, this approach will also help you reach a broader audience.  Explaining your research in a way that is interesting and understandable by non-technical audiences will help promote the value of science to the general public and to familiarize the public with the scientists behind the research.

Another advantage of developing audiovisual communication products to accompany your technical articles is that they can fulfill the "broader impacts" criterion required by some funding agencies (e.g., NSF).  In addition to having a clear plan to address the "broader impacts" criterion, successful proposals include evidence that the PI has previously developed materials that, for example, explain the significance of their work to broader audiences such as the general public or policymakers.  Having created semi- or non-technical fact sheets, podcasts, interactive graphics, and videos to explain your technical work shows review panels that you have the capability of meeting the broader impacts criterion.  I'll talk more about this aspect in future posts.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Initial Rejection Leads to More Citations Later

You've been waiting anxiously for that email from the journal with news about your latest submission.  It finally arrives in your inbox and you open the message:  "We regret to inform you....blah, blah, blah."

Is your paper doomed to oblivion?  Not by a long shot, according to a recent study that followed the submission histories of 80,748 manuscripts submitted to 923 bioscience journals.  Vincent Calcagno and colleagues obtained information from authors to allow tracking of their papers and used the data to construct a network of manuscript trajectories and eventual citations.  Although some of their findings were unsurprising (resubmission trajectories often involved going from higher- to lower-impact journals), there was one interesting and unexpected outcome:  Those papers that were initially rejected ultimately received significantly more citations on average when they were finally published than those accepted upon first submission.

The main reason for this finding, according to the authors, is due to input from editors and reviewers on the initially rejected manuscript.  The presumably more critical reviews (which would be likely, given that the paper was rejected) led to improvements that ultimately resulted in more citations when the paper was published elsewhere.  And this result occurred regardless of whether the paper was eventually published in a lower vs. higher impact journal than the original.

Although this seems like good news for you and your just-rejected paper, the reality is that you will still need to spend time and effort to revise your manuscript, resubmit it somewhere, and then deal with a new set of reviews and editorial comments.  In some cases, your manuscript might get rejected several times before it finds a home.  During that time, which can be months or even years, your work is not being read or cited.

The paper by Calcagno et al. is one of many that try to explain citation metrics.  There have been other studies of factors influencing citations such as numbers of references in the cited paper (more references = more citations), the length of the paper's title (longer title = more citations), and open-access publications (open-access = more citations).  Such factors have been touted as ways to boost one's own citations and h-index.  However, such anticipated outcomes may not pan out because some are based on spurious bivariate relationships, not necessarily cause and effect.  I've also seen some advice about self-citations:  cite one or more of your own papers in each new work to boost overall numbers of citations.  However, most bibliometrics allow exclusion of self citations in assessing someone's citation rate.  So padding one's paper with extra references or self-citations or similar tactics likely won't work.

Similarly, even though the statistics described above suggest that those papers initially rejected eventually get more citations on average than those accepted upon first submission, it's still a better individual strategy to avoid rejection in the first place by submitting the best paper you can (which means revising many times before submission) to the most appropriate journal for your topic.  And if your paper gets rejected?  Don't give up and pay close attention to the reviewers' criticisms when making your revisions.


Calcagno, V. et al.  2012.  Flows of research manuscripts among scientific journals reveal hidden submission patterns. Science online. DOI: 10.1126/science.1227833

Corbyn, Z.  2010.  An easy way to boost a paper's citations.  Nature News. doi:10.1038/news.2010.406.

Jacques, T.S. and Sebire, N.J. 2010. The impact of article titles on citation hits: an analysis of general and specialist medical journals. J R Soc Med Sh Rep. vol. 1 no. 1 2. doi:10.1258/shorts.2009.100020

MacCallum C.J., Parthasarathy H. 2006. Open access increases citation rate. PLoS Biol 4(5): e176. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040176

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Do Science Faculty Favor Male Students?

Scientists are supposed to be unbiased.  So it was perhaps a shock to some when a paper was published a few weeks ago in PNAS called, "Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students".  In this study, the researchers gave faculty members (both male and female) fake applications of undergraduate students who were thinking about going to graduate school and who would be applying for a lab manager position.  The application packages were exactly the same...except for the gender of the applicant (John or Jennifer).  What were the results?  According to the authors, the faculty members "rated the male applicants significantly more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant." The male applicants were also thought to deserve a significantly higher salary (about 14% higher) than the female student applicants.  The other surprise was that both male and female faculty exhibited similar levels of bias.

Although some critics have questioned the findings, I was impressed with how thorough the authors were and with the insights their study revealed about stereotypical thinking.  If you read the paper and the supplementary information, you see that the authors went to great lengths to ensure their methods were solid.  Although the differences between the male and female student evaluations were not huge percentage-wise, they were nonetheless significant.  The presence of a small but significant bias suggests that the lower percentages of women achieving faculty or other senior science positions could be partly due to subtle bias as well as to other factors such as work-family issues (child-bearing/rearing) and related personal choices affecting success in STEM fields (see references at the end for several reports that discuss these different influences).

I know that the work-life balance explanation would not apply to my experience because I never had children (or work vs. family choices) that interfered with my science career. Yet I always struggled to gain recognition in my field, was consistently underpaid in relation to male counterparts, and had to achieve several times more than male colleagues for the same level of acceptance, salary, and advancement opportunities.  My experience, of course, does not preclude the possibility that the main obstacle for some women is related to the work-life balance issue.  Similarly, the results of this study do not suggest that bias is the only reason for a disproportionately low number of women faculty in STEM fields.  The point is that it could have an effect, which on top of other obstacles, may tip the balance.

A single instance of bias...a negative comment, a less enthusiastic mentor, or a luke-warm letter of recommendation will not kill someone's career.  However, when someone is treated to subtle bias on a regular basis throughout their training and career, it has an effect, not only directly on the opportunities offered to that person, but on their confidence.  Perhaps the latter is the most important effect because it quickly becomes a feedback loop.  If faculty advisers treat female students with slightly less enthusiasm than male counterparts, this may cause the student to question themselves (or to view themselves as being slightly less worthy of attention), which makes them more tentative in their interactions with superiors and colleagues, which makes people question their capabilities, which leads to fewer job offers, lower salary offers, fewer nominations for awards, and fewer opportunities for advancement.

The authors discuss how this subtle bias may be rooted in stereotypical thinking about the social roles of men and women. I should note here that the authors of this paper do not propose that the bias they measured in the science faculty participants was conscious....they did not think that the faculty participants were deliberately rating the female applicants as inferior.  Their interpretation was that this bias is subconscious and that we all suffer from it to one degree or another.  You can check out your gender objectivity, subconscious and otherwise, at Project Implicit.

An article written by Meg Urry (a professor of physics) about her impressions of this gender study and bias, made an interesting observation along these lines.  She noted that those people who swear they are not biased are the most likely to make biased judgements; conversely, those who are aware of their subconscious biases are less likely to succumb to that internal bias.  Urry's observation reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger personality type, which causes someone to overestimate their abilities:  the more incompetent they are, the higher their confidence.  This seemingly paradoxical effect occurs because the mental skills required to be competent at most tasks are the same skills needed to accurately evaluate one's own abilities in relation to others.  I speculated in a series of previous posts (starting here) that such people fall back on stereotypes to gauge other people's competence because they lack the mental skills to assess them based on more objective evidence.  Perhaps also, when busy people are faced with a complex set of materials and are asked to make a recommendation, they are more susceptible to subconscious biases or may rely more on them to make a decision.

Whatever the reason for the difference in how male and female student applicants were assessed by science faculty members, the results of this study should make everyone more conscious of the possibility that we may be biased, especially when we think we are not.

Some Additional Reading:

Beade, D. et al. 2011.  Women in STEM:  A gender gap to innovation.  ESA Issue Brief 04-11. [Link]

Hill, C. et al. Why So Few?  American Association of University Women.  [Link]

Ivey, E. 2005. Gender differences among contingent faculty: a literature review. Association for Women in Science. [Link]

NAS.  2007.  Beyond bias and barriers: Fulfilling the role of women in academic science and engineering.  National Academies Press [Link]

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Gender Differences in the Careers of Academic Scientists and Engineers, NSF 04-323, Project Officer, Alan I. Rapoport (Arlington, VA, 2004). [Link]

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Using Minimalism to Promote Women in Science

Here's a nice idea to celebrate women in science:  minimalist posters.

The six examples you see to the right were done by Hydrogene to highlight several pioneering women in science:  Marie Curie (physicist & chemist who won 2 Nobel Prizes for work on radioactivity), Rachel Carson (marine biologist and author of Silent Spring, which kickstarted the environmental movement), Sally Ride (astrophysicist and first American female in space), Grace Hopper (computer scientist who pioneered programming language), Rosalind Franklin (biophysicist whose work laid the foundation for understanding the structure of DNA), and Jane Goodall (primatologist who did ground-breaking work with chimpanzees).

The concept of minimalism is used mostly in art and music to convey the essence of a subject.  All extraneous and distracting aspects are eliminated, leading to the core identifying elements.  It's a concept that I find to be appealing and highly effective in conveying an abstract idea, or in this case, pioneering women and their contributions to science. Some might argue that it is overly simplistic and fails to capture the complexity of these women and their contributions. However, there are other works (their publications, biographies, etc.) that accomplish those things.

What these minimalist posters do is capture the imagination of the viewer who then wonders who these women are and why their names are associated with these striking images.  Perhaps the viewer becomes curious and looks for more information about the less familiar ones.  For example, the image of a moth on the Grace Hopper poster refers to the story about how she coined the term "debugging" to describe fixing computer glitches after a real moth was removed from the innards of a malfunctioning computer (see this bio for a picture of the log entry with the actual moth taped to the page and the accompanying log entry, "First actual case of bug being found").

Of all the posters, that one is my favorite because it's the least obvious, and the link between name and image derives from a controversial story.  Apparently, there is some disagreement over whether Hopper actually coined the term "computer bug" or "debugging" in reference to computers.  You'll find several websites arguing about this point, and reading them one gets the feeling that the authors think that by discrediting this story they also discredit Hopper.  This one, for example, debunks the story but never mentions Hopper's real contributions to computer science.  Even if the intent in debunking the moth story was not to discredit Hopper, the failure to even briefly acknowledge her role as one of the first computer programmers is telling.  Whereas other blogs question the story but acknowledge (and celebrate) Hopper's work.  I did not have time to track down all the historical details, but my impression is that no one knows the real story about who coined the computer bug terminology.  Maybe Hopper didn't coin the term, but she appears to have helped spread its use by retelling the moth story.  And she certainly made other, more substantial contributions.  That's what's really important.

I'll have more to say about this general idea of minimalism in coming posts and how we might use it to promote our own science accomplishments.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Grandiloquent Erudite Vernacular

I've mentioned in previous posts how the best authors use simple language to convey their opposed to verbose, pretentious wording designed to sound impressive.  I've had many a distressing discussion with certain students and postdocs who insisted that their abstruse writing, sprinkled with many multiple-syllable words, was superior to a more straightforward approach using simpler language.  I always argued that they were not fooling anyone and were likely annoying and confusing the reader (and journal editors and reviewers) with their convoluted constructions.  I knew that I was annoyed.

I came across an article containing evidence that stating familiar ideas in pretentious language is viewed as a sign of low intelligence and is less credible than a simpler message.  The article, authored by Danny Openheimer, is entitled: "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly".  The paper (seen here) starts out by quoting from Strunk and White to "omit needless words" and Daryl Bem's guidelines for a psychology journal submission that "the first step towards clarity is writing simply".  The paper by Openheimer describes a series of experiments in which the complexity of the text is manipulated, and the readers' impression of the author's intelligence is assessed.  There was a negative relationship between text complexity and judged intelligence, even when various factors were controlled.  The conclusion was that the more simply and clearly you write, the more intelligent you are judged to be.

Two-thirds of 110 undergraduates answered yes to the question, ‘When you write an essay, do you turn to the thesaurus to choose words that are more complex to give the impression that the content is more valid or intelligent?’ This behavior is apparently a reflection of the widespread myth (at least among students) that using more complicated words in their writing will make their essays sound more credible.  And I can attest that this idea is very difficult to eradicate once entrenched in the student's mind.  This paper, however, might help to counter this myth so that students are more receptive to their adviser's suggestion that clarity, brevity, and simplicity are what a writer should be striving for.

Having worked in the Federal government, I've probably seen more than the usual amount of convoluted writing.  There are a bunch of amusing examples of before and after government writing at  Here's one example, which won the No Gobbledygook Award:


"Section 301-2.5(b) Indirect-route or interrupted travel.

When a person for his/her own convenience travels by an indirect route or interrupts travel by a direct route, the extra expenses shall be borne by him/her. Reimbursement for expenses shall be based only on such charges as would have been incurred by a usually traveled route. An employee may not use contract airline/rail passenger service provided under contract with the General Services Administration (see part 301-15, subpart B, or this chapter) for that portion of travel by an indirect route which is for personal convenience. Additionally, an employee may not use a U.S. Government Transportation Request (GTR) (see section 301-10.2 of this chapter) or a contractor-issued charge card (see part 301-15, subpart C, of this chapter) for procurement of commercial carrier transportation services for that portion of travel by an indirect route which is for personal convenience. An employee may, however, use contract airline/rail passenger service, as well as a GTR or contractor-issued charge card, for portions of travel that are authorized to be performed at Government expense. (See section 301-11.5(a) of this chapter regarding reimbursement claims for travel that involves an indirect route.)"


"Section 301.10.8 What is my liability if, for personal convenience, I travel or use an indirect route?

If you travel on government business by anything other than the most direct, least cost route available, you must pay for the added costs so the taxpayers don't."

Now if we can only convince science students that simple is better.....  Maybe we need a similar contest to the No Gobbledygook Award for improved science writing?