On this page:
I recently came across a really interesting paper from Cambridge University about animal cultures and social learning.
But wow, is it hard to read (online, anyway):
The above screenshot is on a mobile phone, but even on larger screens, it is still hard to read (at least in my opinion). Why is that?
The language used is not necessarily the issue; instead, it is the usability:
- Massive, dense wall-of-text paragraphs makes it harder to scan
- On mobile, some paragraphs are taller than my screen; there’s no “breathing” room
- Scannability (as that is how most people read online) is close to impossible despite some headings
- Justified text, rather than left-aligned, slows down reading too
How do people read on the Web?
It has been well-established, for decades, that people rarely read word for word on the Web; they scan.
Quoting Jakob Neilsen’s famous summary of his study in 1997:
Web pages have to employ scannable text, using
- highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
- meaningful sub-headings (not “clever” ones)
- bulleted lists
- one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
- the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
- half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
That behaviour was verified a decade later by Jakob Neilsen, noting readers read very little:
On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.
The problem is everywhere
It is not just this paper, though; many academic papers suffer this problem. Why is that?
These are guesses only:
- Academic writers have strong, traditional writing skills
- They write for their audience who are used to that style of writing
- They often used to appear in print (where some of these guidelines may not be as crucial compared to online reading)
- They have a very selective audience who have the incentive to read these papers in detail
- They are simply unaware of these guidelines for online
But domain experts are people too and also benefit from better online readability.
Augment long-form content with shorter blog posts?
Interestingly, LSE had suggested that academics should treat blogging more seriously; it may help their papers get a wider audience.
Does that allow the paper itself to remain dense walls of text? Possibly, as it could help get digestible information out. But if someone wants to deep-dive in today’s time-poor world (like I was trying to do!), having the original paper also be adjusted for better online readability would certainly help.
Just recently my wife had to submit an exam paper on a medical topic. She had a challenge with keeping the word count down and asked me to help.
I suggested that she break her paragraphs into smaller chunks maybe consider use bullet points as a way to bring out the key points in fewer words.
She tried it and submitted it to her course lead, who said it was really good and really liked the use of bullets, but she wasn’t sure the examiners would be used to that! My wife has submitted it so we’ll see what happens…!
Update: she got a distinction! But they said there were too many bullet points 🙄 So an article on evidence-based medicine didn’t want to use evidence-based guidelines…
Update March 2023
The above was written about 3 and a half years ago. An interesting article digs into this deeper, The elements of scientific style (a nice play on the influential typography work, The Elements of Style).
It notes that many are poorly written and, in addition to the problems I listed above, they are increasingly jargon-filled, full of acronyms and more.
(I particularly like the point that declaring an abbreviation once is common-place but not helpful: “Humans do not read like computers: Declaring a ‘variable’ once does not guarantee that people will be able to remember it without effort when it comes up later. So, while acronyms and abbreviations do have their uses, their increased frequency over time is rather bad news.”)
And its only been getting worse as the decades go by. (Ignoring the issues of paywalls and such!)