I think that reading and writing online have had a significant impact on the way we read. I know that if I am writing on the computer, as opposed to longhand, my style will be very different. I will often go back and edit on paper in order to achieve the effect I want, and that will often mean joining up longer sentences and using sub-clauses.
Things that are written and edited online will generally have much shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs than writing which is edited on paper. I assume there is some kind of visual effect in operation … I’m too lazy to look it up, but someone has probably written a paper about it. I know that when I’m editing papers for online publication, I’ll do different things with the text depending on if I expect people to download and print, or read online.
If you read, for example, Charles Dickens, or any of the Victorian writers, even articles written for journals and newspapers, you’ll see much longer and more complex sentences than anything likely to be written today. But Dickens was a popular writer, the John Grisham of his day … so he was using language that ordinary people would be comfortable in reading.
A fair bit of the ability to read is not about understanding the words and grammatical patterns, it’s about the ability to concentrate. I don’t think we realise how much of our learning to read, is actually about learning how to stay with a sentence and narrative, it’s as much about memory as it is language. We no longer have the practice our great-grandparents did, in reading complex sentences, so we struggle a bit now.
Also, a lot of academic language is technical … it uses theorectical models and understandings which require some background in the field. Many academic texts are written for a peer audience, which it is assumed will have a command of that technical background.
Sometimes that means just plain bad and lazy writing, but sometimes it means a discourse which depends on being able to use specialist terminology to make an argument.
I find it odd that although most people can cook, few people would expect to pick up an advanced text on physics and understand it without support, but because most people can read, they expect that cultural and literary theory should be immediately accessible.
That being said, having spent the better part of two years editing academic texts for publication, I admit that many academics are actually pretty poor writers, and would probably have some difficulty getting the point across in a shopping list.