When I was a college student, a professor of logic once asked us to write a brief paper on a specified topic, which I no longer remember. I do remember that I didn’t understand the question that we were supposed to address and had no clue what to write. So I carried out an experiment. I wrote something such that each sentence appeared to make sense, but so that the paper did not make any sense when taken as a whole. (Think “Sarah Palin’s speeches” but with crisper logic.) My experiment was successful as far as I was concerned. I got a “B.” My conjecture is that it would have taken the professor too much time to see through my lack of logic, and it was easier to give it a reasonable grade. (Warning to current students: do not try this approach with me.)

In today’s Boston Globe, there is a brief article entitled “You’d sound smarter if you wrote less clearly.” It’s about David Hakes, an economics professor, who simplified a complex argument in mathematical economics. Hakes explained, ”We managed to reduce the equations in the paper to six. At this stage the paper was perfectly clear and was written at a level so that it could reach a broad audience.” When the paper was rejected for being “self evident”, Hakes and his co-author decided to make his work less readable and much more complex mathematically, with no added value. Hakes later wrote ”I personally could no longer understand the paper.” It was now acceptable to the referees and published.

Hakes’ point extends to Operations Research and other fields that rely on mathematics. Referees often do not like simplicity because it may make a paper sound “obvious”, and no referee wants to accept a paper that is obvious. Mathematical complexity usually seems unobvious, and makes the paper more palatable.

As a referee, I have sometimes asked for a substantive revision of a complex paper if I came up with a much simpler version. For example, I once asked an 80 page paper to be shortened to around 15 pages, with no loss of content. But simplifying a paper is, in general, very difficult and is not the task of a referee. The unfortunate truth is that authors really can increase their odds of publication by making their papers unnecessarily complex.