“Obviously” in academic writing

Academic writing is full of bad habits. For example, using words like “obviously,” “clearly,” or “of course.” If the author’s claim or reasoning really is obvious to you, these words make you feel like you’re in on the secret; you’re part of the club; you’ve been made a part of the “in” group.

But when you don’t know what they’re talking about, the author has alienated you from their work. They offer no explanation of the concept because it seems so simple to them that they simply won’t deign to explain themselves clearly to those not already “in the know.”

Part of an academic’s job is to clearly explain every argument in their papers. It is lazy and exclusionary to imply readers should already understand a concept or a path of reasoning.

At worst, it just makes you sound rude and superior:

“Advertising is, of course, the obvious modern method of identifying buyers and sellers.” – Stigler, “The Economics of Information”

He really doubled-down on how evident this fact is, which only tells the reader how smart he thinks he is. The sentence could have read, “Advertising is the preferred modern method of identifying buyers and sellers,” and could have included a citation.

On the other hand, a non-exclusionary use of “obviously”:

“Obviously, rural Ecuador and the United States are likely to differ in a large number of ways, but the results in this (and other recent) papers that show a shifting food Engel curve point to the risks inherent in assuming that the Engel curve is stable.” – Shady & Rosero paper on cash transfers to women

The authors had previously compared two papers from two very different contexts; they use “obviously” to acknowledge the potential issues with comparing these two settings. This is an acceptable use case because the statement that follows actually is obvious and is bringing any reader on board by acknowledging a possible critique of the argument. It is an acknowledgement of possible lack on the author’s part, rather than a test of the reader’s intelligence or prior knowledge.

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Hannah Blackburn

Hannah Blackburn is an associate at IDinsight in Nairobi, Kenya. IDinsight is a non-profit organization that uses a variety of data-driven research methods to help decision makers in the development field maximize their social impact.

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