Differences in academic writing & publishing between STEM and humanities

STEM and humanities have distinct research cultures including vastly different writing and publishing conventions. Knowing about these differences is important for successful interdisciplinary collaborations as well as for picking the right writing advice, course or trainer. This article provides a generalized overview based on anecdotal evidence.

It is common to talk about and give advice on “academic writing” as if it was a homogeneous, unified matter. In reality, however, there are huge differences in academic writing and publishing between STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and humanities, with social sciences falling somewhere in-between.

The differences are so huge that we can safely talk about two different research cultures — or even two different research worlds.

Yet researchers are often not aware of these differences, which leads to misunderstandings and conflicts, alienating these two groups and preventing successful collaborations. Furthermore, young researchers often end up in the wrong writing course or wonder about a piece of writing advice that doesn’t seem to make sense to them.

This article attempts to close the knowledge gap by providing a comparison of academic writing and publishing processes and conventions in STEM and humanities.

Martina from WritingScientist.com, writing trainer for STEM, has talked to Dr. Claudia Macho, writing trainer for humanities, about the differences in academic writing and the nature of writing struggles researchers tend to experience.

The discrepancies in academic publishing were crowdsourced through the Facebook group Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped. The quotes throughout this article show some of the insightful comments of the group members.

I. Academic writing

Research and role/status of writing

The actual research work is typically distinct from reading and writing. There is some practical work (experiments/simulations/calculations..) that is the basis for the publications.

As a result, writing is often regarded as secondary. First and foremost, you have to do your practical research. Then you “simply” write up your findings.

The actual research work is tightly coupled to reading and writing. You generate new knowledge by reading, thinking and writing.

So writing is an integral part of the research. Oftentimes students and academics find that they can only generate ideas, structure and innovative findings through intensive writing and rewriting. This can be very time-consuming and at times frustrating.

(Note: Extended writing and reflecting about research is very useful also in STEM. It can help progress with the research faster and write up the manuscript faster and more easily. Unfortunately, STEM researchers usually don’t do much of this so-called prewriting. If protocols and lab notes are required, they are typically short and skimpy.)

Structure of research articles

There are quite detailed conventions regulating the structure of research articles. Most fields use the IMRAD structure (Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion) or its variation, and in general there is not much freedom to create your own structure.

On the other hand, the structural templates allow researchers to write up a research article quickly, without the need for substantial restructuring.

The structure of research articles is quite free, and has to be developed by the author of the article. So it is often hard to decide on a specific structure and stick with it.

As a result, texts often undergo several restructuring phases and the authors are still left with the fear of not getting the structure right.

Article length

Original research articles are rather short in STEM (typically 5-15 pages) but longer in the humanities (20-30 pages or even more is typical in many fields).

This difference reflects the fact that STEM research is quantitative while research in the humanities is qualitative.

Language & writing style

The ideal writing style is clear, concise and precise. The role of language is to make the content easy to follow and understand. So simple language and short sentences are preferable.

Language is often rich and diverse. Longer compound sentences are common. Some fields still hold the notion that an academic text will appear more intellectual and smart if its language is complex.

II. Academic publishing

Publication types

Research articles are the most valued type of publication. Edited books with chapters contributed by different authors exist, but usually don’t play a major role.

Both article and book publications are valued. In some fields books are valued more than articles.

Thomas Kuhn once said that at Princeton, when someone in the humanities came up for tenure, the question was always “where’s the book,” while if someone had a book in the sciences they would say “how did he think he had time to write a book.”

[A]s a humanities-leaning sociologist, it took me some time to get used to the prestige afforded to meta-analyses in harder disciplines. We don’t have the same assumption of objectivity, so comparing lots of articles is useful as a lit. review but isn’t expected to create any kind of authoritative insight.

As a sociologist dipping into harder material the sheer volume of articles in the sciences is also impressive. They often seem more straightforward but there are a lot. Again, the value of published meta-analyses makes sense in this context.

Role of the PhD thesis

Content of the PhD thesis is divided and published in several articles, before or after graduation.

PhD thesis is typically the first draft of a book proposal – there can be intensive reworking before the text is actually published.

Number of co-authors

Original research articles in STEM typically have multiple co-authors, while publications in the humanities are predominantly single-authored.

Multiple authorship of an article in STEM occurs because these articles are often based on a long series of experiments which requires input from multiple researchers.

Involvement of PhD supervisors

Supervisors are typically involved in the research and publications of PhD students in STEM, while they are typically not involved in PhD research and publications in the humanities.

Peer-review process

In many fields the time from submission to acceptance in a single journal stays under 1 year. It is considered appropriate to inquire about the manuscript status after 3 months of not hearing anything back from the editor.

The time from submission to acceptance in a single journal can easily exceed a year. In many fields it’s considered normal to not hear anything back from the editor for 6 or even more months.

This discrepancy is partly because many journals in the humanities publish only one volume per year (in contrast to multiple volumes per year in the STEM) and the articles are longer, taking more time to review.

Fascinating how my field of marketing is smack in the middle: only articles are valued, most are multi-authored but you’re supposed to have 1 single-authored (preferably method focused) and you hear back within 3 months but take over a year to publish.

Journal impact factor

The impact factor is very important for hiring and evaluation of researchers (although there are trends to abandon it).

Impact factor does not exist in many fields. Nevertheless, journal reputation still plays a role when deciding where to publish.

III. Writing challenges & needed support

Most common writing challenges

One of the most common challenges is to get started and generate text. It turns out it’s not so easy to express in words — precisely and concisely — what you have done practically. Also since writing is not an integral part of research, many scientists struggle to find time for writing as there is always something “more important” to do instead…

For beginners, another common challenge is selecting the results to include in the article and creating a storyline as well as writing the Introduction and Discussion section where one needs to integrate their own work with other people’s research and provide a bigger perspective.

As reading is such an integral part of the research, it can be overwhelming to find countless different aspects of a topic and not know what to focus on in your own work and what to leave out.

So, one of the most common challenges is: “I cannot write 2.000 pages but if I leave anything potentially important out, others will criticize me for not having done my research and work thoroughly enough.”

This constant battle of determining which topics you have to write about and not losing yourself in your own text makes writing difficult.

Most needed support

Support in developing strategies and habits for efficient and productive writing process, integrating writing into the everyday work and creating peer-support structures for motivation and text feedback.

Support in managing and structuring very broad and complex fields of study, determining what is really relevant for your own research and how you can transform it into a clear and linear text, developing structure both in your ideas and in your text.


So… that’s quite a bunch of substantial differences, right?

There are many more differences between individual fields that can’t be clearly grouped into STEM vs. humanities. For example: single- vs. double-blind peer review, value of conference papers, etc.

What are your experiences with these different conventions? Please, share your story or insights in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Differences in academic writing & publishing between STEM and humanities

  1. This was really helpful and informative in general.

    I think the point about clear, concise and precise writing may be unfair. Many humanities fields care a great deal about clarity. We insist on short sentences and accessible language. In my own field (philosophy), clarity and brevity of writing takes precedence over just about anything else. Some fields (i.e. English) may place more value on rich language and vocabulary. But even there, I don’t think anyone treats complexity or highfalutin language itself as a sign of sophistication. They just need longer words to express the points they want to make.

    1. Thank you, David! The idea of striving for language complexity and sophistication in humanities comes from (frequent) anecdotal evidence. It would be interesting to conduct a survey study to see the real extent and distribution in the different fields.

  2. Thank you for this overview, which I find helpful and dovetails with my experience (yes, N=1). I’m trained in STEM and have been supporting and collaborating with a humanities-trained friend. I remember my surprise when she said that humanities researchers don’t test their theories or share data—now I get that it’s because writing is their analog to STEM-style lab work. This is why humanities can advance theories based on a survey of ~100 people, which is then built upon by other researchers and become harder to disprove (STEM has its own version of this, I know). My thought is that both cultures can learn and adopt the best practices of the other and shed their worst.

    I did have a chuckle in the section about clarity, because STEM articles have their own brand of opaqueness.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience! I fully agree with you that “both cultures can learn and adopt the best practices of the other and shed their worst”.

      Considering the opaqueness in STEM articles: yes, this is indeed an issue.. But at least the ideal is there and I guess everyone tries to write with as much clarity as they can 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *