Scientists’ clichéd superlatives

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Scientists have discovered that everything they do is astonishingly robust, phenomenally novel, and groundbreakingly unprecedented.

The authors of a new paper in the always entertaining Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal tracked the frequency of positive, negative and neutral words in all of the scientific abstracts in PubMed between 1974 and 2014. The figure above shows the trend for a bunch of really clichéd superlatives.

They conclude that:

Although it is possible that researchers have adopted an increasingly optimistic writing approach and are ever more enthusiastic about their results, another explanation is more likely: scientists may assume that results and their implications have to be exaggerated and overstated in order to get published. Our finding that scientific abstracts use more overt positive language is also probably related to the emergence of a positive outcome bias that currently dominates scientific literature. There is much pressure on scientists in academia to publish as many papers as possible to further their careers. As a result, we may be afraid to break the bad news that many studies do not result in statistically significant or clinically meaningful effects.


Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between 1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis, by Christiaan H. Vinkers, Joeri K. Tijdink, Willem M. Otte, BMJ (2015)

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