Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between 1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis

Christiaan H Vinkers, Joeri K Tijdink, Willem M Otte

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

OBJECTIVE: To investigate whether language used in science abstracts can skew towards the use of strikingly positive and negative words over time.

DESIGN: Retrospective analysis of all scientific abstracts in PubMed between 1974 and 2014.

METHODS: The yearly frequencies of positive, negative, and neutral words (25 preselected words in each category), plus 100 randomly selected words were normalised for the total number of abstracts. Subanalyses included pattern quantification of individual words, specificity for selected high impact journals, and comparison between author affiliations within or outside countries with English as the official majority language. Frequency patterns were compared with 4% of all books ever printed and digitised by use of Google Books Ngram Viewer.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Frequencies of positive and negative words in abstracts compared with frequencies of words with a neutral and random connotation, expressed as relative change since 1980.

RESULTS: 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%. Comparable but less pronounced results were obtained when restricting the analysis to selected journals with high impact factors. Authors affiliated to an institute in a non-English speaking country used significantly more positive words. Negative word frequencies increased from 1.3% (1974-80) to 3.2% (2014), a relative increase of 257%. Over the same time period, no apparent increase was found in neutral or random word use, or in the frequency of positive word use in published books.

CONCLUSIONS: Our lexicographic analysis indicates that scientific abstracts are currently written with more positive and negative words, and provides an insight into the evolution of scientific writing. Apparently scientists look on the bright side of research results. But whether this perception fits reality should be questioned.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberh6467
Pages (from-to)h6467
JournalBMJ (Online)
Volume351
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 14 Dec 2015

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