These are tough times for scientists. As funding has flattened or declined, the competition for grants and glory has grown increasingly fierce. In response, many researchers are touting their work more aggressively.
That is the implication of a new study by three biomedical Dutch researchers (to which communication scholar Matthew Nisbet drew my attention). The authors examined the frequency of 25 positive words—from “amazing” and “astonishing” to “unique” and “unprecedented”--in abstracts listed in the biomedical database PubMed between 1974 and 2014. Here is how they summarize their results in the British Medical Journal, BMJ:
The absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), a relative increase of 880% over four decades. All 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15,000%. Comparable but less pronounced results were obtained when restricting the analysis to selected journals with high impact factors. Authors affiliated to an institute in a non-English speaking country used significantly more positive words.
As the authors themselves note, their results dovetail with the finding of epidemiologist John Ioannidis that “most published research findings are false,” as he put it in a blockbuster 2005 paper. Ioannidis has suggested that increased competition among researchers is leading to increased confirmation bias and exaggeration, if not outright fraud. The Dutch researchers write:
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… The consequences of this exaggeration are worrisome since it makes research a survival of the fittest: the person who is best able to sell their results might be the most successful. It is time for a new academic culture that rewards quality over quantity and stimulates researchers to revere nuance and objectivity.
Right. That’s about as likely as world peace. The authors conclude an upbeat note. “Despite the steady increase of superlatives in science,” they state, “this finding should not detract us from the fact we need bright, unique, innovative, creative, and excellent scientists.”