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Dec 2012

Spin and Boasting in Research Articles

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Epidemiology and Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center (Drs Cummings and Rivara); and Department of Pediatrics (Dr Rivara), University of Washington, and Seattle Children's Hospital, Seattle, Washington.

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;166(12):1099-1100. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.1461

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

Examples include: “[X] has reached an alarming proportion,” “an awe-inspiring number,” and “drastic increase.” These feverish words lack scientific meaning. Instead, give relevant quantities for a particular place and time: counts of events, incidence rates, or prevalence estimates. Consider describing how these quantities have changed over time. Let the reader decide whether anything is alarming, awesome, or drastic. Writing that something is “a critical priority,” even if true in some sense, is just an editorial opinion unlikely to persuade. Referring to “the obesity epidemic” is a cliché. 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. Researchers should use a minimum of adjectives to describe their topic.

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