The curse of science: many academics are more focused on ‘sounding smart’ than grounding science in society


The government often claims that Indonesia has been ranked the highest for the number of scientific publications in Southeast Asia.

Data from the Scimago scientific journal ranking system, for example, shows that in 2020 Indonesia’s research productivity will be in the 21st position in the world – up 15 places from the previous three years. This ranking has the potential to continue to rise in line with the incessant culture of scientific publications in Indonesian universities.

However, this high amount of research production is not followed by a good dissemination of knowledge from the academic community to one of the parties who need it most , namely the community.

Many parties, from professors to deputy ministers , have voiced the lack of science communication in Indonesia.

Professor and former chancellor of the Indonesian Islamic University (UII) in Yogyakarta, Edy Suandi Hamid, for example, said the dissemination of this weak science was a ” huge waste of research results ” in Indonesia.

This lack of scientific communication is due to various reasons, including not many lecturers who are willing to share research results in a way and through media that are more accessible and understandable. They seem to forget that ordinary people have difficulty understanding their analyzes in scientific journals.

Curse of science

So far, the academic community in Indonesia, especially at universities, has been demanded by universities to devote their energies to publishing articles in reputable international journals.

As a result, the writing is published using the format, style, and academic vocabulary, which are usually in English, making it difficult for the public to consume.

The already wide distance between academic writers and the general public is then exacerbated by the ” curse of science “. This curse takes the form of thinking bias that occurs in people with higher levels of insight who fail to consider a problem from the perspective of a more ordinary person. As a result, science communication is increasingly unbridgeable.

Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, United States (US), for example, said scientists and lecturers really like to use a jargon-filled writing style called ” academese “.

He gives an example of an excerpt from a scientific article using complex language which in Indonesian is more or less meaningful:

“Participants read several declarative statements whose truths were confirmed or rejected by affixing a word assessment that came after”

The sentences that appear in the methodology section of the scientific article alone are very difficult for native English speakers to understand, let alone Indonesian readers.

Though there is a choice of sentences that are simpler without reducing the meaning. Pinker gives an example, which in Indonesian might read:

“Participants read several sentences, each followed by a true or false statement”

This sentence is much shorter and clearer so that it is easy to understand. However, the public and policy makers still very rarely find scientific articles written in this language style.

In certain fields such as the social sciences and humanities, the habit of writing styles that are full of specific vocabulary with dense and complex sentence structures is still a challenge – especially for non-native English speakers, including most Indonesians.

According to research from the UK that examined hundreds of teachers and principals, many educators who want to increase their teaching capacity still have difficulty understanding the results of research in journals. In the end they rely more on information from popular sources such as the mass media.

Sounds complicated on purpose

Academic culture , or writing style with high language can be a manifestation of the desire of academic writers to increase their reputation by highlighting scientific credibility.

In fact, some of them may even do so to simply cover up the impression that their scientific findings are mundane and offer nothing new.

A study by Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, for example, found that 86% of respondents admitted that they had deliberately used complex vocabulary to sound more scientific.

In addition, two-thirds of them also admitted to using thesaurus to find synonyms for more academic words in their articles.

This shows that the use of high and complex language is a perpetuated characteristic of the publication culture in the academic world.

Increase the number of popular posts in the media

One way the academic community can overcome this is actually to distinguish between the target audience from the academic community and those who are ordinary people. One example is through popular writing in the mass media.

Unfortunately, currently there are very few lecturers who write in popular scientific media that have an editing process that favors ordinary readers.

Academics not only lack the time and skills to write popular science, but there is also no incentive for them to spread scientific insights through this channel.

As an illustration, the government currently only focuses on awards for lecturers who write in scientific journals in accordance with the Regulation of the Minister of Research, Technology, and Higher Education No. 20 Year 2017

This incentive is not only given by the central government in the form of monetary awards, but also from each institution with various amounts. At the Islamic University of Indonesia (UII), for example, incentives for international proceedings (scientific works for academic conferences) can be valued at up to IDR 8 million.

Meanwhile, support for writing in popular media is in the form of very small points, which is only 1 credit score (AK) for writing in popular magazines. Compare that to writing in an English-language national journal which can reach up to 20 AK

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology (Kemendikbud-Ristek) needs to provide more incentives for lecturers to write down research results or use their scientific insights to dissect hot issues in society with language that is more straightforward, clear, and down-to-earth through reputable media capable of reach many people.

From here, demands and encouragement can arise for academics to increase their capacity in communicating research results not only through seminars, but through popular scientific works.

The quality of publications through journals with an academic style still needs to be improved because it has its own share of readers. One of them is scientists who build scientific insight in their respective fields.

However, the wider dissemination of research results must also be encouraged as a solution to the poor communication of science in Indonesia so that this space is not filled with misinformation from opportunistic social media and online portals.

Author Bio: Ahmad Junaidi is a Lecturer (Universitas Mataram) and PhD Candidate at Monash University