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Generic language in scientific communication:

There is increasing recognition that research samples in psychology are limited in size, diversity, and generalizability. However, because scientists are encouraged to reach broad audiences, we hypothesized that scientific writing may sacrifice precision in favor of bolder claims. We focused on generic statements (“Introverts and extraverts require different learning environments”), which imply broad, timeless conclusions while ignoring variability. In an analysis of 1,149 psychology articles, 89% described results using generics, yet 73% made no mention of participants’ race. Online workers and undergraduate students (n = 1,578) judged findings expressed with generic language more important than findings expressed with nongeneric language. These findings provide a window onto scientists’ views of sampling, and highlight consequences of language choice in scientific communication.

What’s cool is that this paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a journal that is notorious for the use of generic statements that imply broad, timeless conclusions while ignoring variability.

For example:

More broadly, these results point to the importance of considering the design of environments—from airplanes to office layouts to stadium seating—in understanding both the form and emergence of antisocial behavior.

The paper has broad implications for interdisciplinary science, because it demonstrates a striking pattern in human behavior that bears on, among others, the disciplines of psychology, medicine, sociology, economics, and anthropology.

Etc.

The publication of this new paper is a good sign. Maybe PNAS will reform its ways. Or maybe not.

3 Comments

  1. Fred says:

    > Studies 2 to 4 (n = 1,578) found that **readers** judged results expressed with generic language to be more important and generalizable than findings expressed with nongeneric language.

    I actually like the paper but there is a bit of irony in the authors using a generic term “readers” instead of “online workers and undergraduate students” in the abstract.

  2. Doug Davidson says:

    From what I’ve read so far, I really like the article, both for the work they report, and the kind of question they are asking.

    One criticism, in the spirit of advancing this kind of work: The abstract reports that “In an analysis of 1,149 psychology articles,…” but from what I can tell, it was an analysis of titles, highlights, and abstracts. I think the authors would do well to point out the potential differences in language use in abstracts versus main text. If I’m mistaken about that, I’d appreciate feedback.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Doug said,
      “The abstract reports that “In an analysis of 1,149 psychology articles,…” but from what I can tell, it was an analysis of titles, highlights, and abstracts. I think the authors would do well to point out the potential differences in language use in abstracts versus main text.”

      Good point.

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