Researchers at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands say that the frequency of positive-sounding words such as ‘novel’, ‘amazing’, ‘innovative’ and ‘unprecedented’ has increased almost nine-fold in the titles and abstracts of papers published between 1974 and 2014. There has also been a smaller — yet still statistically significant — rise in the frequency of negative words, such as ‘disappointing’ and ‘pessimistic’.
Psychiatrist Christiaan Vinkers and his colleagues searched papers on PubMed for 25 ‘positive’ words and 25 ‘negative’ words (which the authors selected by manually analysing papers and consulting thesaurus listings). The number of papers containing any of the positive words in their title or abstract rose from an average of 2% in 1974–80 to 17.5% in 2014. Use of the 25 negative words rose from 1.3% to 2.4% over the same period, according to the study, published in the British Medical Journal on 14 December1.
The change seems to be a trend particular to research papers, the authors say: an analysis of the same words in published books (using the Google Books Ngram viewer) showed little change.
…Vinkers and his colleagues think that the trend highlights a problem. “If everything is ‘robust’ and ‘novel’”, says Vinkers, then there is no distinction between the qualities of findings. “In that case, words used to describe scientific results are no longer driven by the content but by marketability.”