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Communications of the ACM

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Simplifying Communication


How often have you picked up a scholarly journal in a discipline far removed from your expertise, only to be stymied and mystified by the disciplinary jargon? It can be humbling and intimidating when one fails to understand meaning of all the words in an article’s title or the abstract. When coupled with the contextual knowledge often implicitly assumed by the authors, the gulf of understanding yawns wide and deep.

This epistemological and linguistic chasm separates and isolates even within the broad tent of our own discipline, which spans everything from the fundamental theory of computability to the professional practice of informatics. If you have any doubt, open the ACM Digital Library and scan a few articles in a specialty far removed from your own.

In a world where discoveries increasingly lie at the boundaries of traditional research disciplines, simplifying communication and encouraging multidisciplinary dialog and partnership have never been more necessary. In almost every case, computing is an essential element of disciplinary and multidisciplinary research. Thus, it is time for us to embrace writing as a collaborative enabler, rather than a research burden.

Channeling Strunk and White

All too often, we academics write in a strange argot of disciplinary esoterica that can obscure the very ideas we seek to communicate. If you have ever encountered an article like the following, you know what I mean.

"Spatiotemporal domicile proximity to retroverting domestic ruminants," I. B. Smart, I. A. Postdoc & O. Authors, International Journal of Bovine Mobility, Vol. 123, No. 11, pp. 2143-2147, 2013

However linguistically facile and intellectually adept, the authors and putative ruminant experts failed to say what they really meant ("wait for the cows to come home") and why that might matter.

In a similar spirit, the late Richard Hamming once famously noted, "The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers."  The academic publishing cognate is best summarized as, "The purpose of writing is communication, not obscuration."  There is also an important corollary, "Write to communicate, not to impress or intimidate." Yes, subtlety and nuance are important, but they are mere handmaidens to clarity and lucidity.

Even when we avoid these linguistic traps, another, equally deadly one waits to ensnare – turgid and passive prose that invites only slumber. As anyone knows who has either served as a journal editor or reviewed a seemingly endless stack of conference paper submissions, passive, wordy and meandering prose makes identifying the key ideas and assessing their importance even more difficult. 

Technical papers are not page turning spy novels, nor should they be, but they can still be interesting, clear and engaging as they convey the essential facts. As a writer, one’s job is to make the reading easy; you want your papers to be read and appreciated.

The Message is the Message

It is always dangerous to write an essay about writing, lest one be lampooned for the very deficiencies one seeks to highlight. Such is life. My goal is to focus attention on an important issue.

While continuing to pursue core research in our own discipline of computing, I believe we must also communicate effectively with our peers in the arts and humanities, science and engineering, medicine and public policy. We cannot all be polymaths, but as writers, we can do more to lower the disciplinary drawbridges and invite readers into our intellectual castle.


 

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