In my upper-level/grad course plus my journal club, students read peer-reviewed journal articles. These are advanced students in anthropology, so even if they are reading something outside their specialty, they are versed in reading primary literature and these articles should be well within their skill set to understand. I choose them on topic, often just from what I remember them being about and me thinking it was important/relevant. I rarely, if ever, read the full article again before posting, and it is becoming frustratingly obvious that I sometimes choose bad articles for them. Why are they bad? Because my students are wasting their time trying to figure out the research question, the hypothesis, the point. That is the fault of the author, not of my student.
When students air this grievance I tell them "remember this feeling so that when you are writing manuscripts, you remember to not get so bogged down in your own details that you forget how to communicate science."
As scientists, our papers in academic journals are written to our peers, and I think in a lot of ways we may cut corners in laying out our assumptions or setting up our hypotheses because it is part of the process with which we are all intimately familiar. However, when I have a student read an academic paper and ask them to pull this information out of the text, it can be quite a challenge for them because it is rarely stated so plainly. Therefore, when anyone not in our field reads one of our papers, they may be just as lost. Instead of blaming the reader for not understanding, maybe we should be better at communicating. If we want our work to have impact beyond our specialty, then we need to write in a way they can read.
In January, John Hawks wrote a piece "Can we build a science of human evolution that people can trust?" He had engaged with his followers on Facebook and Twitter regarding what they, scientists and non-scientists alike, wanted to see in 2017. Many of the responses were rooted in trust, from sufficient sample sizes to intellectual disconnects between disciplines.
Hawks' take-home message?
"Just trying to answer those shared questions, directing resources to them and engaging with the public, will build trust."
And I agree. I am a big advocate of public engagement. But not every scientist actively participates in this venture. It is time consuming to have to stand in as a translator of science. But what if the primary literature was easier to understand? It wouldn't eliminate the need for public engagement, but it would help to build allies outside our field and aid science writers in communicating our work more effectively to the public. If a paper is well structured, you can glance through the elaborate methods and statistics that might be far from your area of speciality but still understand how those were used to test the hypotheses and predictions and walk away with a good understanding of how the author reached their conclusion. The details are necessary so specialists can continue to build on scholarship, but the paper can also serve the purpose of communicating the work more broadly.
Of course, I do not mean "dumb down our work." What I mean is to write out our hypothesis, predictions, assumptions, etc. with clear language that indicates that that's what they are. In most instances, this extra bit of attention is not going to up your word count to the point where it is problematic. Even if it does, aren't these important words that should remain in the manuscript?
In my own writing, some of my papers are better than others. I know that I am not perfect at laying out my hypotheses and predictions each time. And of the 20ish articles my students have read so far this term, they only voiced this complaint twice. But after the second time of telling them to remember to be better, I thought I should share that sentiment more widely. I hope that next time you sit down to write a manuscript, you remember the scientific method and let it help you structure your paper.