Please stop using “novel” and “unique” in your abstract

Screenshot 2016-03-22 07.02.44I love this. Three researchers picked 20 top biomedical journals and searched all titles and abstracts since 1975 for positive, negative, neutral, and random words.

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%.

Here are the individual words:

Screenshot 2016-03-22 07.03.21The authors conclude: “Apparently scientists look on the bright side of research results.”

Some colleagues, especially junior ones, have told me they have to use these words to sell their paper. I disagree. As a referee, when someone calls themselves innovative, my first assumption is they’re not.

At minimum it signals a rookie writer. Let me give you some unique and innovative advice (see what I mean?): Instead of calling your data set novel, just say “We collected new data on X.” Instead of saying this is an unprecedented result, say “The results suggest that we should think differently about Y.”

Those of you perusing my old abstracts for errors of commission, you will find them. Remember that all advice is a mix of “don’t do what I did” and “be more like me”. And should be discounted accordingly.

Hat tip to Dave Evans.

107 thoughts on “Please stop using “novel” and “unique” in your abstract

  1. I can’t stop using these words, because then journals will think I’m even less likely to be {positive word} than the others. It’s called inflation.

  2. But all the boring easy results were already published, and now you really do have to be novel (not just say you’re novel) in order to make headway. Which is to say: it’s not inflation unless someone can prove that the content was equally robust and creative in 1975.

  3. Those of you perusing my old abstracts for errors of commission, you will find them. Remember that all advice is a mix of “don’t do what I did” and “be more like me”. And should be discounted accordingly.

    golu dolls
    golu dolls