“Novel.” “Exciting.” “Incredible.” “Devastating.” “Unprecedented.” You name the adjective, and a scientist has probably stuck it into a grant application to score funding.
One symptom of the forces that are distorting science and compelling researchers to churn out high impact publications is the use of overinflated adjectives and adverbs. Part of informing and guiding good practice in research and the writing of excellent in research outputs is highlighting that the use of such language is neither desirable nor is it a hallmark of quality work. Mentors and leaders have a key role to play here. This should be stressed in professional development and guidance material.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, scientists use subjective language to promote their work. And while it’s not strictly unethical like data manipulation or more severe forms of spin, those kind of linguistic choices can affect how proposals are evaluated, for better or for worse, said study author Neil Millar from Japan’s University of Tsukuba. But these repeated corporate buzzwords can make a reader cringe when peppered throughout a scientific study. One medical journal editor told Millar that reading the word “novel” was like hearing fingernails on a blackboard.
In the study, Millar and his team analyzed application abstracts from an NIH database of all funded projects over the 35-year span. They coded adjectives as non-hype or hype based on how promotional they were in context, and whether they could be removed or replaced by a less subjective word without altering a sentence’s meaning.