The advantage of making papers harder to understand

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.

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5 Responses to “The advantage of making papers harder to understand”

  1. Open Research Says:

    Thanks a lot for pointing it out,

    I cannot count the number of times that I have found a very complex paper and then implemented that and realized that it has a little substance or no value

    Although sometimes I find a paper that is extremely complex but a shorter version could reveal its beauty

    Thanks again

  2. Geoffrey De Smet Says:

    I think this is a primary reason why the academic and professional world don’t collaborate as much as they can.
    The professional world hardly reads academic papers because they are much too complicated and because they don’t include source code examples.

  3. Les Servi Says:

    Your experiment reminds me of one done by Alan Sokal, cf
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair He is brilliant physicist who wanted to conduct an experiment to see if a journal in postmodern cultural studies would, in Sokal’s words: “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” He published his experiment and then went pubic to the embarrassment of many.

    I think there is a progression one goes through as an author, reviewer and reader as one matures professionally to value insight more than complexity and to view complexity as a lack of clarity of thought. E = MC^2 is a rather simple equation but I like it.

  4. Jorge Says:

    James,

    Why you don’t update your blog. Our OR community need your great posts.

    Jorge.

  5. Mahdi Says:

    Hi, There is no topic to write about? I give you a topic! I was and I am always interested to know the opinion of some scientists -like you- about the conferences. Which conferences do you prefer? Do you find them useful? Some of them are fake, you send just an abstract and then it will be accepted, some times we see very low level studies are presented in some famous conferences.

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