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.