Saturday, June 24, 2023

A study in misplaced scientific flair

A senior and junior scientist are looking at a colorful painting on the lab wall. "What is it?," asks the older one. "You said to do an abstract," answers the young one.

It's the most-read part of scientific articles. Abstracts are supposed to give you a quick impression of research results. But while they may be small, they're crammed with traps. Hype in scientific articles seems to be escalating, and abstracts – those little study blurbs – tend to be the hypey-est part.

Of course, sometimes scientists have already gotten creative with a biased title for the article – bonus "points" for getting in first even earlier, with the study name or its acronym. (More on the acronymania menace here at Statistically Funny.)

What does this mean for us as readers? It means we can't be sure about the real takeaway messages from a study based on the abstract alone. Which, frankly, sucks. 

There's some good news at least: There's some serious research into the problem. And there are some telltale signs. I reckon you have to keep a sharp eye out for adjectives and adverbs – that's where things often take a spicy turn.

In May 2023, Olivier Corneille and colleagues published a list of 22 persuasive communication devices to watch out for in academic papers. Gulp! There's a summary of the list in table 1.

On the plus side, today's hype words mightn't work for long, thanks to "semantic bleaching". That's when overuse of hyperbole "'bleaches' out the stronger meaning of the word." Though I guess there will always be new buzz words to take their place. Sigh!


Disclosure: I'm a co-author of the 2013 PRISMA reporting guidelines for abstracts of systematic reviews. I have unfortunately contributed to the huge pile of conference abstracts that have never been followed by published papers, including a couple that evaluated the quality of abstracts (1998a, 1998b).