Issue 42 / 29 October 2012

A FEW months ago, for a conference presentation, I compiled a list of words researchers could use in published papers to increase their chance of getting media attention for their findings.

Breakthrough, cure, risk, new, threat, warning, battle, fight and aggressive were some examples.

Attach any of those words to one of the media’s favourite diseases — cancer, for example — and there’s your headline. Never mind that the research itself might not justify the attention.

As I wrote earlier this year, when researchers and medical journals exaggerate the importance of the research they publish, some journalists can be all too quick to take the bait.

Now, two US epidemiologists writing in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine have mounted an attack on what they call “spin and boasting” in research articles.

The hit list of phrases Dr Peter Cummings and Dr Frederick Rivara would like to see eliminated from published research includes “alarming proportion”, “drastic increase”, “critical priority”, “obesity epidemic”, “strong evidence” and even such claims as “our results clearly show”.

In fact, these two University of Washington researchers are pretty down on descriptive words generally.

Researchers should use a minimum of adjectives and leave their findings to speak for themselves, they suggest.

“[The] feverish words [found in some papers] lack scientific meaning. Instead, give relevant quantities for a particular place and time: counts of events, incidence rates, or prevalence estimates … Let the reader decide whether anything is alarming, awesome, or drastic.”

Boasts of being first are common and can also be comical “because they have so many qualifiers, like bragging about being the oldest left-handed person to walk backward up the Washington Monument”, they wrote.

Examples of boasting identified by these authors include “the findings … open up a new frontier”, “the first unequivocal demonstration”, “largest sample size”, “new insights” and “strong new evidence”.

“Resist immodest chest-thumping”, they conclude.

Some researchers are not content with exaggerating the importance of their own research: another perhaps more insidious technique exposed in this paper is the unfair disparagement of previous studies.

Some articles include dismissive references to inconsistent or mixed results from earlier research, “fuzzy words” that, according to these authors, explain nothing. Some differences in results are almost inevitable given that studies are conducted in finite samples, they wrote.

Similarly, vague references to methodological flaws, small sample sizes or retrospective design undermine confidence in previous findings without actually showing that any of these factors have affected the reliability of results.

Denigrating others, using dramatic or emotive words, claiming a breakthrough when all you have really achieved is a small insight: these are the methods of the spin doctor rather than the reputable medical researcher.

But are Drs Cummings and Rivara aiming for a level of purity that is beyond the reach of most mere mortals?

These doctors do confess to having themselves committed some of the “literary sins” they identify, so it’s not that they’re being holier than thou.

But would we really want to eliminate all descriptive language from scientific papers, even supposing such a thing was achievable?

Yes, the journals and peer reviewers should call researchers to account when they overstate the case but, if a finding truly is dramatic, why not say it?

While the facts will speak for themselves to those readers who truly understand the context, and who share the authors’ knowledge of the topic under discussion, scientific papers have a broader audience these days than just fellow researchers.

Spin and boasting should, as these authors say, be weeded out but not at the cost of removing the interpretation — and the passion — that can make science accessible to a more general audience.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 29 October 2012

4 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Beware of bragging

  1. Richard says:

    “Resist immodest chest-thumping”. Love that line.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A person very close to me is very high up in the NHMRC and sits in at the grant allocation meetings. I’ve been told years ago already, and I see it happen every year, that in the month or so before the NEXT meeting, news items appear on evening TV etc to the effect of a “breakthrough” etc etc. It turns out it is from such groups wishing to raise the awareness and consciousness of the panel to get a more favourable hearing.

  3. Graeme Cumming says:

    Stick to the numbers please.

  4. Sue Ieraci says:

    The press have some responsibility here – perhaps each outlet should have a panel of informed people to check out the spin and present a more sophisticated and contextual view of the study findings. (Then they could report: “Underpowered pilot study exaggerates potential implications of weak findings.” May not make such great news, though).

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