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Why so many research papers are so hard to understand

Wondering why so many research papers are so hard to read? I got some great words of wisdom from Professor Jean-Claude Latombe on the subject back when I was in his research group at Stanford. He described two strategies people employ for getting your paper published in a journal. The first is to do some great research and write the results up in a clear, well-written way.

Sometimes, however, you may invest time in research and end up with not particularly interesting results. If you wrote a paper describing your insignificant research in a clear manner, then your paper would clearly be bad and would be rejected. A strategy to employ in this scenario is to present your research in a complex, non-straightforward manner. Now no one will ever say your paper is great, but people will be less likely to say your paper is flat out bad (after all, it sounds like you were researching something really complex!). So your paper will fall into the middle of the pack which may be good enough to get published.

For an incredibly vivid illustration of this strategy, check out SCIgen, an automatic CS paper generator that got a randomly generated paper accepted into a conference.

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Reader Comments (11)

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February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenteruberVU - social comments

I am not sure I agree with this. Some papers are complicated because the area itself may be complicated or one may not have the knowledge to understand the papers as they are written.

Also, coming to SCIGen, the paper was accepted under a non-refereed track (means no one read it before accepting it). Some conferences do it for money.

February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuman K

Certainly many papers are complicated because they deal with complex problems and complex solutions.

A lot of papers though are really simple once you're able to get through the terminology and parse what the paper is about.

February 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternathanmarz

The main purpose of writing a paper is not for others to understand. It is for furthering your own research career! :)

February 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjust kidding

[...] Why so many research papers are so hard to understand — thoughts … [...]

The reviewing process may not be perfect, but it's not so bad that they accept SCIgen submissions! :)

The conferences that accept SCIgen-generated papers are scams, they accept all submissions without review and then charge the (naive) authors "publication fees".

February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVilhelm S

The OP is not about why *some* papers are complicated. It's about why *so many* are.

February 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

I can't tell you how many papers I've read where, once the equations were simplified, a confusing bit of terminology turned out to be a really simple thing like a mean, variance, or application of Baye's rule.

February 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSeggy

[...] Thoughts from the red planet: Why so many research papers are so hard to understand [...]

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