The role of prose quality in scholarship
Better-edited papers fare better in peer-reviewed journals.
The dominant language of science and scholarship is English, and yet native English speakers do not have a monopoly on scientific and scholarly insights. Some non-native English speakers believe this puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to acceptance in peer-reviewed journals and citations, and pay language editors to improve their prose.
But is it worth it? Does improving the quality of prose improve the perceived quality of scholarship, and with it, the likelihood of being accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals and citation in further papers? That’s the subject of “Writing Matters,” a new preprint paper.
The paper’s authors are a Kiwi economist (Jan Feld) and two plain language specialists (Corinna Lines and Libby Ross) who run a consultancy in New Zealand. They devised an ingenious experiment to determine what benefit — if any — scholars derive from paying editors to clean up their prose.
They got a bunch of unedited economics papers written by PhD students, and had language specialists rate their prose quality, and also ran the text through a widely accepted empirical “grade level” estimator (Flesch-Kincaid). Then, the paper were edited by language specialists with no knowledge of economics (who would thus be unlikely to inadvertently improve the substantive claims in the papers).
Finally, both versions of the papers — original and edited for clarity — were judged by economists and writing experts who were divided into experimental and control groups, with one group getting the edited versions and the other getting the original. These judges weren’t told that they were reading edited or raw papers, and they weren’t told (until afterward) that they were participating in an experiment about the effect of prose on the perception of scholarly quality.
The results verified the commonsense conclusion: experts who reviewed the edited papers didn’t just rate them as more readable — they also rated them as being better scholarship. They indicated that they would be more likely to accept the papers for conference talks and…