Distinguishing features of academic writing #4: Objectivity

fresh work area with a blank screen on the laptopA good researcher is objectively seeking answers to their research questions and reporting those findings objectively to the community at large. But what does it mean to write objectively? How do we maintain objectivity where possible? Finally, how do we make efforts to identify and avoid bias in our academic writing?

In our fourth discussion of the distinguishing features of academic writing, we discussed all of these questions. A summary of the discussion and related resources is below.

We started the discussion with the core question, “What does it mean to write objectively?” Danielle Apfelbaum responded saying, “For me, it means being conscious of and checking my attachments to and biases toward the content I’m creating and revising.”

Eric Schmieder said, “Writing objectively means to separate yourself from the subject matter and any preconceptions associated with a topic to evaluate what exists rather than what is believed to be true.” Apfelbaum added, “I think it also extends to acknowledging that these preconceptions exist and that, despite the writer’s best efforts, a complete separation of fact and feeling might not always be possible.” Schmieder responded, “I certainly agree. It’s not possible to eliminate bias, but through acknowledgement of them, we can be open to alternative ideas.”

A resource on the Using English for Academic Purposes (UEfAP) website says that objectivity “means that the main emphasis should be on the information that you want to give and the arguments you want to make, rather than you.” The Study.com lesson titled Objective Writing: Definition & Examples supports this definition stating, “Objective writing is writing that you can verify through evidence and facts. If you are writing objectively, you must remain as neutral as possible through the use of facts, statistics, and research.”

To make your writing more objective, the Online Writing and Learning Link (OWLL) at Massey University suggests the following techniques:

  • Be explicit in expressing your ideas,
  • Avoid intensifiers which can tend to exaggerate your writing in an imprecise, subjective way, and
  • Try to avoid making value judgements through use of words such as amazing or dreadful.

With an understanding of what it means to be objective in academic writing and some techniques for making your writing more objective, we asked, “What types of things can affect your ability to be objective in your academic writing?”

Schmieder said, “I think the biggest barrier to objectivity is ego. When authors are not willing to explore ideas and results that contradict their established beliefs, but rather find evidence to support their own opinion, objectivity is eliminated.” Apfelbaum added that objectivity is affected by “your stake in the outcome of the writing project.” Schmieder agreed saying, “Definitely another factor influencing objectivity. What does the author have to gain from the results? Good point.”

Something else to consider, as noted in a resource from The University of Sheffield, is that “academic writing is a language that no one is born speaking.” For some authors, there is an assumption that simply writing in third person makes the writing objective and, consequently, academic authors are often advised not to use first person in their academic writing. An article by David Gooblar, In Praise of the First Person, published on Chronicle Vitae, claims however, “Subjectivity and objectivity, in fact, have nothing to do with which grammatical person you choose to use.”

John Warner claims, in his Inside Higher Ed article The Pitfalls of “Objectivity”, that “’objectivity’ is in the eye of the beholder” and that “different audiences may require different choices of evidence”. Instead of focusing on objectivity as an academic skill, he suggests arming students with “critical sensibility” instead.

So, then we asked, “Why is it important for academics to write objectively?” According to Hanover High School English teacher, Mr. Concilio, on his writing resources webpage, On Objectivity in Academic Writing, “The purpose of academic writing is to advance human understanding based on unbiased observation and analysis. As such, academic writing is supposed to be objective.”

Schmieder claims, “As academics we should be exploring subject matters from multiple perspectives to identify and present facts that can further a body of knowledge. While opinion and experience may lead to avenues of discovery, challenging theories and beliefs leads to truth.” The Capital Community College Foundation states in their Guide to Grammar and Writing that “it is better to describe as objectively as possible what has happened and to allow our readers to form their own opinions”.

“Though sometimes thought of as long-winded or inaccessible, strong academic writing…informs, analyzes, and persuades in a straightforward manner and enables the reader to engage critically in a scholarly dialogue”, according to the ThoughtCo article, An Introduction to Academic Writing. Further, “The goal of academic writing is to convey a logical argument from an objective standpoint. Academic writing avoids emotional, inflammatory, or otherwise biased language. Whether you personally agree or disagree with an idea, it must be presented accurately and objectively in your paper.”

But perhaps this is easier said than done. Our next question was, therefore, “How do you ensure objectivity in academic writing?” Schmieder said, “To the extent that is possible, I’d say the goal should be to challenge your beliefs. Look for opposing viewpoints and identify what makes them credible. Let them serve as a litmus test for your own claims.”

Apfelbaum added, “I like to give my writing time to breathe; I set it aside and come back to with fresh eyes. I’m less attached to the work when I give myself distance from it.” Schmieder considered this excellent advice noting, “If we can become ‘readers’ rather than ‘writers’ of our work, we can be more objective in the evaluation of the ideas.”

Jamie Goodwin offers six tips on how to use an objective tone in your writing, as follows:

  1. Use facts and data
  2. Show opposing viewpoints
  3. Refrain from using personal pronouns
  4. Avoid contractions
  5. Consider your word choice
  6. Don’t ask questions

According to the Top Education Institute’s Library Guide on Academic Writing, “It is important to choose the most relevant words to explain concepts and ideas. Formal and specialist terminology can help express meaning in a precise way and avoid misinterpretation.”

In an article on The Proofreader, the following 5-point Checklist for Writing Objectively is shared:

  1. Use facts, credible evidence and resulting logic
  2. Omit emotive language, intensifiers and judgmental language
  3. Be tentative and hedge your statements
  4. Do not stereotype and remain gender-neutral
  5. Cut personal language and personal pronouns

After discussing the definition, purpose, and ways to incorporate objectivity into our academic writing, we turned our attention to a related discussion topic – bias. Our first question related to bias was, “What are ways that bias appears in academic writing?”

Schmieder said, “I think bias appears as absolutes. When there is not room for the reader to question the information or challenge the author’s approach, a piece is biased. However, when nothing is absolute or based on a process that can be recreated and tested, bias prevails.”

Apfelbaum offered that bias results from “extending/generalizing conclusions beyond what one’s data supports” or “overemphasizing certain results and short-changing others in one’s discussion of the findings.” Schmieder agreed saying, “Overuse of self-citation and limited literature basis for claims as well as intentional omission of opposing thought from the literature” are clues when identifying bias in a manuscript.

According to the Study.com resource, Recognizing Biases, Assumptions & Stereotypes in Written Works, “Recognizing biases takes practice.” They recommend asking the following questions to help identify biases:

  • Does the writer use overly positive or overly negative language about the subject?
  • Does the writer use emotionally charged language about the subject?
  • Does the writer use vague or generalized language about the subject?
  • Does the writer omit any important facts?
  • Does the writer add information and evidence that seems unnecessary just to bolster his or her point?
  • Does the writer fail to properly cite his or her sources?

The New Jersey Institute of Technology guide, How to Evaluate Information Sources: Identify Bias, identifies bias as “when a writer or speaker uses a selection of facts, choice of words, and the quality and tone of description, to convey a particular feeling or attitude”. Further, they state “Being aware of bias and knowing how to identify, analyze, and assimilate biased information properly is a skill to be treasured. It puts you in charge of how you think”.

In the PressBooks resource, Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research, they note the following six clues about bias:

  1. Coverage – biased work often omits a lot of information on a topic
  2. Citing sources – biased work includes references without links to the source
  3. Evidence – biased work includes assertions with little evidence or documentation
  4. Vested interest – the author of biased work seems to have a vested interest in the topic
  5. Imperative language – biased work includes many strongly worded assertions
  6. Multiple viewpoints – biased work includes only one version of controversial issues

Ashford University says, “In academic writing, it is important to avoid using language that can be seen as biased.” Similarly, Susan M. Inez notes in her article, Why Avoiding Bias in Writing Is So Important and How to Do It, that “bias prevents you from being objective” and it “can express false assumptions and beliefs and present a lack of sensitivity”.

Therefore, our final question of the event was, “What can you do to avoid bias in your academic writing?” Schmieder suggested first, “Explore alternative lines of thought with an open mind. Play devil’s advocate from time to time and read work that is in direct opposition to your own beliefs.” He also advised being willing to “step out of your comfort zone. Find ways to explain how you came to your conclusions to someone who knows nothing about your research. Question the answers.”

Apfelbaum said, “Get a review buddy. Have someone you trust look at your work. No matter how much distance you give yourself from a work, nothing helps like having someone else critique it.” Schmieder added, “Accountability is another benefit to the buddy system in writing, but it’s important to choose someone who will challenge your biases rather than echo and uphold them as well.” Apfelbaum agreed, “Absolutely! Such a good point!”

In a related article, Sarah Prince shared five simple rules for banishing bias:

  1. Be specific when necessary
  2. Leave out superfluous differences
  3. Call people what they prefer to be called
  4. Do not reduce people to their ailment or condition
  5. Do not make your experience the norm or standard

In earlier posts we looked at the first three of the five distinguishing features of academic writing, precision, complexity, and formality. Closing out the month, we continued our discussion looking at the final feature – accuracy. Look for our future blog post from that discussion and join us on Twitter every other Friday for new TweetChat discussion topics under the hashtag #AcWriChat.