Lyytinen, K. (1999). Empirical research in information systems: On the relevance of practice in thinking of IS research. MIS Quarterly, 23(1), 25-27.

Lyytinen pricks the conscience of this English teacher:

Even so, I would not trade off academic writing style and demand that we write in a manner that is simple, concise, and clear, as Benbasat and Zmud suggest. Instead I would expect that we educate our practitioners to appreciate brilliant intellectual efforts! Several IS phenomena are hard to understand and may demand difficult and esoteric language because they cannot be couched in the “common language.” Still, the message of a text written in an esoteric language can be relevant. For example, the fashionable use of Heidegger in understanding design or use of IT is neither possible nor useful unless the  reader can work through Heidegger’s thick concepts and ideas. My nightmare would be to emasculate Heidegger and dress him into the HBR format! [Lyytinen 27]

Lyytinen’s concern sounds like the same one I faced when askedby my superintendent to teach “modern language” — i.e., dumbed-down — versions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. There are “brilliant” works in the English language that would lose value if couched language deemed more “simple, concise, and clear.”

But just how esoteric is our field? How hard can it be to explain what’s happening with information systems? Lyytinen’s suggestion that “academic writing style” and simplicity, conciseness, and clarity lie at opposite ends of the spectrum is distressing. Simplicity, conciseness, and clarity should lie at the heart of advice to any academic writer. They are relative terms — “concise,” for instance, may mean 200 pages for some topics, and “simple” may still require a full semester course to understand.

Shakespeare gets off the hook for extravagant wordsmithery because he is seeking artistic and emotional effect along with understanding of the human condition. Academics have a more focused mission: the expansion of knowledge and understanding. We should welcome the occasional well-turned phrase, but our impact and our aesthetic relies on understanding, Our efforts do little good if they do not spread understanding.

When Senator Mundt taught English, he kept a sign on his classroom wall: “If you can’t say it, you don’t know it!” If we can’t phrase our findings relatively simply, concisely, and clearly, maybe we ourselves don’t fully understand our findings.

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