Study: Scientists More Frequently Using Exaggerated, Unscientific Language To Compete For Funding

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Chris White Tech Reporter
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Language in scientific research papers is becoming more hyperbolic, as competition for funds becomes stiffer, a study based out of Netherlands found.

Researchers at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands scoured through a treasure trove of abstracts and research papers in the PubMed database, and found an 880 percent increase in exaggerated words such as “novel,” and “robust” when describing findings. The positive words were offset slightly by a smaller increase in negative words, such as “pessimistic” and “discouraging.”

The word ‘robust,’ for instance, saw a 15,000 percent increase in usage in papers dating back to 1974, a number head researcher Christiaan Vinkers, a psychiatrist and researcher at the Rudolf Magnus Brain Center, called surprisingly large.

The word ‘novel’ appears in 7 percent of PubMed papers, prompting Vinkers and his crew to suggest, in jest, that the word will appear in every paper by 2123.

Vinkers’ team, according to an article in Nature, sorted their data according to an article’s noteworthiness and the local of an article’s author. The number of negative words, they found, were smaller over the last 10 years for researchers in English-speaking countries.

Vinkers told BBC that he checked on Google books during the data gathering process to determine whether the uptick was a result of a change in language over the past 40 years. He found no change in usage with neutral words or random words — the only change, then, was the dramatic increase in positive words, as well as a moderate increase in negative words.

In total, “we saw an increase of 880 percent” of positive words used in scientific research, Vinkers told BBC recently. Vinkers and his assistants also found that positive-sounding words increased from about 2 percent in 1974 to 17.5 percent by 2014.

Researchers at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands found that positive sounding words are on the uptick in scientific research papers.

Researchers at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands found that positive sounding words are on the uptick in scientific research papers.

“If everything is ‘robust’ and ‘novel,’” Vinkers said in the BBC interview, “then there is no distinction between the qualities of findings.”

He added: “In that case, words used to describe scientific results are no longer driven by the content but by marketability.”

What scientists mean when they use terms like ‘robust’ and ‘transformative,’ Vinkers told BBC, is that what they “found is a real thing for science, and something that is important and not fake.”

The reason why this is happening, Vinkers said, is that they are trying to make their research stand out from the chafe — researchers who use positive or hyperbolic language usually get noticed, and subsequently get windfall funding for new research, he concluded.

They have to play this language game in order to be successful, Vinkers said, adding that ultimately researchers have to show their research is special. It’s a science culture issue, he added.

The problem, Vinkers explained, is that the increased use of lofty language is essentially a marketing ploy, something that waters down the content of scientific studies. He went on to suggest that the increase of flowery language in science papers turns researchers into marketers, to the point to which there is little difference between them and the journalists who cover them.

Worse, Vinkers added, is the interplay between the media and scientific field.

“The media just follow along with press releases filed by science journals,” he noted about the effect hyperbolic words have on media coverage, concluding: “I mean, it would be very good if the media would be more critical about what the results really mean. Are they really novel and robust, or is it something that is nice but needs more study … and has its nuances and limitations?”

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