Historically, academic writing has tended to be precise, cautious, lengthy and even pedantic. However, the pendulum is now swinging back towards a shorter and more ‘plain English’ approach. This is especially true because more and more of the likely audience speak English as a second language. Clarity is therefore essential.
Most students will quickly become familiar with this style of writing, and will learn to both read and interpret it, as well as write in it. This page explains the basics about this style of writing, including information about the academic publishing system, and how to assess academic writing for quality.
The Aim of Academic Writing
Academic writers try to deliver complete and accurate information.
Essential points are usually clearly justified by evidence, and if necessary, references. This is a way of ensuring that the writer is saying exactly what they mean, regardless of length. This style can be tedious to read, but it does help to ensure that the essential points of the text are interpreted correctly. Academic texts are usually written in a clear and logical way. They often start by explaining what the author is going to say, follow by explaining their point, and conclude by explaining what has been said. This is therefore similar in style to a student essay.
Academic texts will contain references to others’ work and a reference list or bibliography.
This shows that the author is basing what they say on sound foundations and has taken into account, or at least read, what others have also explored and discussed. However, it is worth remembering that academic authors may be selective in their reading, and what they choose to present. They naturally want to make clear that their viewpoint is validated by others.
A degree of caution should therefore be used in interpreting academic texts. It is worth taking time to understand the validity and biases. Some academic writers offer alternative interpretations by other academics. This is usually a good sign because it ensures that the reader is aware of the range of opinion and shows that the author is being objective.
Academic journals are a subset of academic texts. They are often more up-to-date than books, and are produced by different institutions and publishers across a broad range of subject areas.
Academic journals were traditionally published regularly, for example, monthly or quarterly. Some online-only publishers, however, now use a continuous publication model, where an article will be published as soon as it is accepted. This model of regular or ongoing publication means that journals are able to respond quickly to new research. They are therefore considered to provide information about the latest research, evidence, ideas and thoughts from across the academic community.
Academic journals are generally well-respected because their content has been peer reviewed (see box). Peer review means that an article has been examined and scrutinised by one or more expert in the field (a peer) and that it is considered acceptable for publication. Journal articles may go through several revisions before they are accepted for publication.
The Peer Review System
The peer review process has a number of steps:
When an article is received by a journal, it will first be assessed by an editor for subject matter and to check whether it complies with the journal’s requirements.
If it passes this first check, it will be sent out to experts in the field, with a request to review it. Most journals will provide potential reviewers with a list of questions to answer, to guide their thinking.
As a result of the responses from reviewers, the authors will either be given the opportunity to revise and resubmit their paper, or it will be rejected, with reasons.
Once resubmitted, the article will be sent back to the original reviewers to check that the changes address their comments and concerns. It may go through several rounds before the reviewers are fully satisfied.
Assessing Academic Writing
Despite the checks carried out by journals and publishers, readers still need to be wary of the quality of the content.
You should always take steps to read further around ideas and theories to check relevance and validity. You should also use an element of common-sense when reading information from any sources, whether it is a respected academic journal or an unverified internet source.
For journals, ask yourself:
Is the journal a well-known and well-established publication?
Well-known publications do not have any shortage of submissions. They can afford to reject any that are at all doubtful. They also have a reputation to protect. Articles are therefore likely to be more robust, and higher quality, although this does not always follow (see box below).
Are the articles in the journal peer-reviewed?
The peer review system means that poor-quality research is less likely to get through. However, it can be very hard as a peer reviewer to express fundamental concerns about the quality of a study, especially if the journal’s checklist is very precise. A number of peer-reviewed articles have subsequently been completely discredited (see box).
Peer review: a cautionary tale
Andrew Wakefield’s infamous article on a potential link between the MMR vaccination and autism was published in one of the most respected and long-established medical journals, The Lancet. It had been peer reviewed, but this process failed to identify fundamental flaws in the methodology, particularly the small sample size (12 children), and careful selection of the sample (to major on children with autism).
The article has since been thoroughly discredited, and formally withdrawn by the journal—but its effects are still being felt around the world in a rise of cases of measles.
Is the journal subscription-based or open access?
Open access journals charge authors a fee to publish. Their content is then available free to read online. Sponsors and research funders often prefer open access publishing, because it means that the results of their funding are available for more people to read. However, open access publishing also means that journals rely on publication fees to survive. They therefore have an incentive to publish more articles, even if their merit is questionable.
A “Wild West in academic publishing”
In 2013, an article in Science magazine described a ‘sting’ operation carried out among open access publishers. The author had submitted a paper containing some very basic scientific errors to over 300 peer reviewed open access journals. Over half had accepted it for publication, despite the obvious errors and flaws.
The article noted, however, that although the author had targeted open access journals, he might easily have received a similar response from subscription-based journals.
Does the journal represent a national body or linked to a university?
Again, both national bodies and universities have reputations to protect. However, the journal’s editorial integrity may also be compromised by wanting to reflect the views of the organisation, or publish more articles from the university’s academics.
There is, therefore, no such thing as a completely reliable source. You are advised to consider articles carefully on their merits and assess the quality of the research for yourself. Provided you give reasons, it is acceptable to conclude in your writing that one particular study is not very high quality, and therefore should not be relied upon as much as an alternative that appears to be better.
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Writing in Academic Style
Every point that you make should be supported by evidence
This means either something from your own research, or a reference to previous research, preferably published in a high-quality peer-reviewed journal. It is not acceptable to say “Sources maintain…” or “Previous authors have asserted…” without providing at least one reference.
However, you might just be able to get away with “It is generally believed…”, provided that this is true.
There is likely to be a required structure for your work
When reporting research work, for example, it is usual to start with a brief introduction, setting out the background to the study, and the gap in the literature. Some papers then include a section reviewing previous work in this area. You would then go on to describe the methods that you used, and the results obtained, before discussing the results in the context of the literature (previously published work by other people), and drawing conclusions.
A review (reporting on previous work in the area) is often more flexible in its structure. It is, however, usually organised by topic rather than chronologically.
It is worth checking whether there is any required structure set out, either in the guidelines for your target journal, or by your university.
The formality of the style is often specified
Traditionally, research was written up in the passive tense, and often the third person:
“An experiment was carried out to investigate…[subject]. Researchers found…[results]/The results showed…”.
Increasingly, however, journals and publishers—and therefore many universities—favour a more direct and active style, with first person writing:
“In this study, we aimed to investigate [subject]. We carried out a series of experiments including [this and that] and found [results]. We believe that this is important because [reason].”
It is worth checking carefully whether there are any requirements on style before you start writing. This will avoid having to make extensive revisions later.
An abstract is likely to be required
Most academic writing requires an abstract, or brief summary of the work. There are likely to be two possible constraints on this: word count and structure.
Abstracts are often limited in length, at anything from 100 words for some journal articles, up to 250 words for most medical and scientific journals (because this is the length accepted by one of the main databases, PubMed), to longer for dissertations.
Abstracts may also be either structured or unstructured. A structured abstract contains headings such as introduction, methods, results and conclusions. An unstructured abstract does not contain headings, although much of the content could be the same.
There is more about writing abstracts in our page on Writing a Dissertation: Conclusion and Extras.
When writing an unstructured abstract, it can be helpful to use headings, then delete them when you have finished. This will ensure that you get a balance between the various sections, and avoid having too much about your background and methods, and not enough about your findings and their implications (or vice versa).
Use the same type of English throughout, and standardise your style
Check whether you are expected to use US or UK English, and set your spell checker to the right language throughout. If you are using UK English, decide whether you wish to use –ize or –ise endings, and use the same style throughout.
TOP TIP! Checking for ending style in UK English
You can use Word’s ‘Find and Replace’ function to check for ize (or ise) and iza or isa in words, and make sure that you have not included any of the wrong endings.
It is NOT recommended to use ‘Replace All’! This is likely to result in some interesting misspellings.
A final thought
Like any other writing style, academic writing is constantly evolving. The best way to stay up-to-date with what is required is to look at current articles as well as any guidelines.