Researchers: Stop the spin and boasting in articles, say other researchers

Researchers often like to complain that science journalists puff up their results to sell newspapers. And there’s no question that reporters make missteps. But a commentary published today in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine brings to mind the old saying about those who live in glass houses not casting the first stones.

In a piece called “Spin and Boasting in Research Articles,” Peter Cummings and Frederick Rivara, two University of Washington faculty members, write:

Some authors exaggerate the importance of their research and unfairly denigrate other studies. This occurs only in a minority of articles we review but is frequent enough that we have collected examples and grouped them into categories.

For example:

Hackneyed phrases do not make the writer appear thoughtful, are boring for the reader, and take up space. Consider whether the reader needs to once again hear that obesity is common, diabetes is increasing, and that the cost of medical care is a problem. We think not.

Then there are the boasts:

Boasts of being first are common. Some are inadvertently amusing because they have so many qualifiers, like bragging about being the oldest left-handed person to walk backward up the Washington Monument.

All of this leads the authors to urge:

Writing for scientific journals should be as clean and concise as possible. Leave spin and boasting to others.

Those “others,” you might not be surprised to learn, are press officers and journalists. In a recent study published in PLoS Medicine, a group of French researchers examined press releases and news stories about 70 randomized controlled clinical trials. They found “spin” — defined as “specific reporting strategies (intentional or unintentional) emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment” — in “about half of press releases and media coverage.”

But researchers shouldn’t be pointing fingers, it turns out. The authors of the PLoS Medicine study conclude:

In multivariable analysis, the main factor associated with “spin” in press releases was the presence of “spin” in the article abstract conclusion.

Cummings and Rivara don’t just point out such problems. They have a role model, published last year in JAMA, “Effect of Screening on Ovarian Cancer MortalityThe Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Randomized Controlled Trial.” And they’re hardly boasting about their own work:

We confess to committing some of these literary sins ourselves; improving writing is a lifelong process.

13 thoughts on “Researchers: Stop the spin and boasting in articles, say other researchers”

  1. Ha! And here I am thinking of a clever way to spin my results into paper worthy of a big impact journal. Sorry, but one of the arts of being a Scientist is to learn how to sell your story for all it is worth.

    1. Klaus, I have to respectfully disagree with you and astroglia on this one – science papers seem to be devolving into mindless trumpet-blowing. I want detailed methods, proper analyses, and discussions of the findings, not someone telling me what I should think about their work.

  2. I’m with Klaus, that sort of boasting and attention to the big issues are needed to be convincing so that reviewers will hopefully agree that your study (or grant) has implications and is important and should be published. Whenever I have tried a less humble or grandiose approach I have been told that my story is “underwhelming” or “without impact” and it gets a low priority score. And a sentence or two of the kind raised here and all of a sudden my work is timely and important and publishing it or funding it is a much higher priority. Interesting points, but maybe it is not the authors that should be slapped on the wrist.

  3. A good while ago, the American Chemical Society strongly discouraged the use of the words “novel” and “new” in titles of manuscripts submitted to its journals. Darn, these were my favorite words.

  4. In a perfect world papers would only be judged on their scientific content. But we do not live in a perfect world…
    If submitting to a fancy journal, the only way it will even be sent out for review (assuming you are not famous or an ex-colleague of the editor) is if you spin and exaggerate the results, beginning with the cover-letter (which, after all, serves no other purpose than to allow the editors to make decisions about a paper without having to read it).

  5. Hmmm, why is there spin, though? Ah, I forgot, one of the main criteria to get into a high profile journal is NOVELTY. That means, you need to argue your results are new. If they are new, it means you are the first researcher to report them. How is that bragging, if true?

  6. On the flip side, it is important for a researcher to explain how their results connect to the larger problem that the experiments are aiming to address. Where to draw the line between explaining relevance to larger issues and boasting is not always straightforward…

  7. Every researcher likes to believe that their research is “novel”. How many researchers would authoritatively claim that they are just repeating someone else’s work?.

  8. I suppose most of us just accept the fact that every abstract announces that the underlying study will cure cancer, stop global warming, unite physics, expose the central evils of capitalism, etc. — with varying emphasis and to varying extents. It’s actually quite helpful to us non-scientists, since it serves exactly the same function as the formal disclosure of conflicting economic interests. That is, it gives the reader a good indication, up front, of the direction and degree of possible bias and the quality of analysis to be expected from the contents. I don’t mean to be cynical — or at least not too cynical. A quick read on the direction and rate of spin is actually very helpful to the reader who is not intimately familiar with the field.

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