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The famous 1954 paper showing the causative link between smoking and lung cancer

Ken Hyland wrote an interesting post (16 May 2023) on the appropriately named LSE Impact Blog, with the melodramatic title “Crucial! New! Essential! – The rise of hype in research and impact assessment”. His article clearly bemoans what he describes as the rise of hype in academic writing.

Of course, academic articles are not supposed to be written for impact. Hyland reported research that suggests that  authors are using more hype in academic articles, but Hyland extends this idea to critique the use of what he terms hype in impact studies. Is he justified?

First, let’s be specific. Much of Hyland’s study is not of research articles themselves, but about “impact case studies” – a different genre entirely. As part of the REF framework in the UK, researchers are expected to describe the impact of their research, and since some at least of the funding available to researchers depends on the impact they can demonstrate from their earlier research, it’s quite understandable that impact case studies will have a very different tone to the research articles themselves. If you ask me to describe my experiment, I will, in sober and objective terms. If you tell me my funding depends on the impact of my this experiment, I will quite justifiably use more emotive language.

Second, what do we mean by hype? Hyland refers to an academic article that describes 25 “positive-sounding words”. Examples of these are “novel”, “innovative”, and “promising”. Are these words examples of hype? Some elementary discourse analysis is required here. Academic English is based around non-emotive terminology. In academic-speak, you say “we found a correlation between smoking and cases of cancer” . You don’t say “smoking causes cancer”, even if you imply it. But it’s difficult to describe the academic research process without using the term “novel”, which appears to me to be a fundamental part of the research vocabulary. Here are some examples of research-speak using the word “novel”. I searched for “novel” in PubMed Central, and got 3.2 million hits from 8 million articles – over one-third of all biomedical articles include this term. A very common type of research article states “This was the state of things; then I examined XYZ in detail, and I found a new observation, or conclusion, or result”. If you hadn’t fund anything new, for the most part, you wouldn’t be writing an article about it. Here are some examples from published academic articles:

  • “The majority of these novel genes …” [an article about the discovery of formerly unknown genes in chickens]
  • “A high-resolution single-molecule sequencing-based Arabidopsis transcriptome using novel methods of Iso-seq analysis” [article title]
  • “Assessing the impact of a novel house design on the incidence of malaria in children in rural Africa” [article title]

What other word could be used in this context?

Now let’s look at the impact case studies. If you are asked to describe the impact of a paper, you are creating a very different kind of speech act. It is not appropriate to use emotive terms in research articles, but it is very relevant to use emotive terms such as “significant” or “encouraging” in a description of impact.

The article that Ken Hyland’s blog post refers to, of which he is co-author, looked at humanities as well as science subjects. This is commendable, but it raises a fundamental difference between the two domains. As I have mentioned before (“What makes a book or article significant?”), arts articles tend to use emotive terms such as “significant” or “ground-breaking” more often than science articles, often as a way of expressing commendation of a particular theory or line of reasoning, but also to indicate where something is widespread. For example:

[Xavier Herbert’s …] key works … were judged as highly significant on publication … [source]

This use of “significant” is not the authors’ own opinion; it is an indication of the consensus at the time. In this case, “significant” isn’t emotive language. I don’t get the impression that Hyland or the researchers he cites took into account this different use of terms. In fact, the word “significant” is used by Doll and Hill in academic writing. In their famous 1954 paper confirming the link between smoking and cancer, they state “the rates [of death] reveal a significant and steadily rising mortality from deaths due to cancer of the lung as the amount of tobacco smoked increase”.

In other words, simply counting the number of times a word appears, without thinking about context or meaning, does not seem to me a very convincing case for a complaint about increasing hype. Since several other writers have made similar claims, I could say that Hyland’s piece was not particularly ‘novel’, but that might leave me open to accusations of using emotive language.