Robust, novel, innovative, and unprecedented

  • #1
S.G. Janssens
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
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The following article just appeared in the British Medical Journal:

Vinkers CH, Tijdink JK, Otte WM. Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between 1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis. BMJ 2015;351:h6467

Here is a related news item from the first author's institution, unfortunately in Dutch only. The publication was also mentioned in the Dutch popular press today.

In any case, I wonder to what extent a similar phenomenon would also be visible in the contemporary physics and mathematics literature. (The authors only looked at publications in PubMed.) Perhaps the trend signalled in the article is due to the tendency of most scientists to be "excellent" these days.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
DrClaude
Mentor
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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.
(emphasis added)

It is not that scientists assume that, but that it is the case for many top journals. I've seen cover letters longer than articles themselves in order to justify why this is important enough research for journal X.
 

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