“Flowery” language, global English, and scholarly communication

I really love language, but my desire to be idiomatic often runs athwart to the goals of scholarly communication. Especially when motivating a paper, I enjoy writing sentences such as this:

In the data-rich setting, at first blush it appears that learning algorithms can enjoy both low privacy risk and high utility.

(Yes, I know it’s passive). However, consider the poor graduate student for whom English is a second (or third) language – this sentence is needlessly confusing for them. If we are really honest, this is the dominant group of people who will actually read the paper, so if I am writing with my “target audience” in mind, I should eschew idioms, literary allusions, and the like. Technical papers should be written in a technical and global English (as opposed to a specific canonized World English).

Nevertheless, I want to write papers in a “writerly” way; I want to use the fact that my chosen career is one of constant writing as an opportunity to improve my communication skills, but I also want to play, to exploit the richness of English, and even to slip in the occasional pun. Am I a linguistic chauvinist? Unlike mathematicians, I never had to learn to read scholarly works in another language, so I have the luxury of lazily indulging my fantasies of being an Author.

When I review papers I often have many comments about grammatical issues, but perhaps in a global English of scholarly communication it doesn’t matter as long as the argument is intelligible. Do we need so many articles? Is consistent tense really that important? I think so, but I don’t have a philosophically consistent argument for what may appear, in situ, to be a prescriptivist attitude.

The cynical side of me says that nobody reads papers anyway, so there is no point in worrying about these issues or even spending time on the literary aspects of technical papers. Cynicism has never been very nourishing for me, though, so I am hoping for an alternative…