I am a university student, I have to read a lot of published paper and cite them into my paper, but I find it really hard to understand the articles.

I am not an English native speaker, but I can speak fluent English and understand most English newspaper. However, when it comes to academic articles, I have no means to deal with.The sentence structure is always so long and complicated that I keep losing my mind when reading them. Though I still can get the rough meanings and the main ideas, I can never fully understand a single academic paper!

I always see words I don't understand, and even I look up from the dictionary, I still got confused by the long and complex sentence structure at the time! I have to read it over and over again.

I want to know if the same problems happen to native speakers too or just me being stupid!

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    On the whole, academic writing is poor. Good writing is rarely valued by the editors and readers of academic prose, as long as the author follows the customs of the field (there are a lot of different sets of customs) and cites everybody judiciously. The purpose of academic publication is not to inform but to promote, and thus it's usually as tedious as most other advertising. – John Lawler Oct 22 '13 at 16:02
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    I don't think you're stupid. Keep in mind that you, as a non-native speaker, not only have to understand the material you're reading but at the same time have to grasp what is said in another language. If you accept that every studying you do in another language is always also studying that language, you can be less harsh with yourself and move on. – phw Oct 26 '13 at 19:30

I would offer a few reasons journals can be hard to read:

1) Researchers who established and talented enough to have their work published in journals are not necessarily good writers. These are highly intelligent folks, gifted in their specialized areas, but not necessarily well-schooled in the art of writing clearly. A physicist can be a mediocre writer yet still be a darn good physicist.

2) An academic article is not intended to be a literary piece, or even a textbook. It's intended to be written by experts, for experts. Authors don't spend a lot of time providing background information, because the readers are presumed to have an expert background in the same field already. The expected formula is: Concisely introduce your research, explain your experiment, and present your findings.

This is not to say that a well-written piece wouldn't be preferred over a poorly written piece, but that's not the main emphasis. Those reading journals are reading to be informed about the newest findings, not taught or entertained. This isn't Life magazine – and it's not intended to be. If you're a beginner wanting to learn more about gallium arsenide semiconductors, don't start by reading journals – you're at the wrong end of the ladder.

3) By nature, many journals are hard to read because the subjects are quite advanced. Authors are condensing months worth of research into a single paper, and, in the scientific fields, their findings are supported by statistics derived from technical experiments. It's not meant to be browsed in the waiting room at the dentist's office.

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The writing of lucid English does not involve long and cumbersome sentences. There is an art to conveying complex thoughts, by using precise language. And to do so in a readable manner scores highly with readers. Among modern English writers I believe George Orwell was especially good at it. The historian Professor David Starkey, whatever you may think of his arrogant political ideas, is a wonderful writer. His 'Six Wives' (of Henry VIII) is a joy to any reader.

Anyone writing in English has the advantage of a vast wealth of vocabulary, from a host of ancient origins, available to them. And expressive and reaching vocabulary is a boon to good writing. But any sentence that contains more than 30 words is a blight. It should essentially contain a single thought, with a minimum of subordinate information.

Many academic writers let themselves down with poor written English. Some try to compete by inventing new words, by adding ...izations, ...isms, ...ifications, ...izes etc on every line. Aside from scientific words, it is safe to assume that, sometime over the last 2,000 years, most words you are likely to need have already been coined. Writers need to make more use of a good dictionary and thesaurus. They should also test their end result by practising the reading of it to their partner or a friend.

Now, please tell me, was that difficult to read?

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  • thank you for your reply, I think I know what you are talking about is the conditions of being a good writer, but I was thinking if that is my problems to understand those articles, maybe it's easy for you. I have an example here which this article takes me really long time to understand it. visualstudies.buffalo.edu/coursenotes/art250/250A/_assets/… please tell me if it is difficult to understand even just for the first two paragraph. These articles are consuming me. – FindingNemo Oct 22 '13 at 16:17
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    'Twasn't difficult to read, but it sounded more like preaching on a soapbox than answering the O.P.'s question. There are several reasons academic papers can be hard to read, but to suggest that could be solved by putting a 30-word cap on sentences is missing the point. "Most words you are likely to need have already been coined" is a bit absurd when talking about research findings; words like transistor, positron, and nanotechnologies weren't around 2,000 years ago, yet that's where researchers work every day, and it's what they write about when they share their research in journals. – J.R. Oct 22 '13 at 17:26
  • Not every instance of a word like heterogeneous is evidence of an author (unsuccessfully) flaunting intellectual prowess in a paper; not every long noun formed with a multisyllabic suffix is a bastardization of English or evidence of an author's "laziness;" not every sentence over 30 words is an aberration or "blight." Moreover, not every academic paper is written as badly as Hall's. Are words like specificity overworked and overused? Quite. But allow for contexts where it may the right word to explain something (statisticians might use it sans presumptuousness, e.g.). – J.R. Oct 24 '13 at 10:26

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