Major and revolutionary increase in hype in grant applications
Jhe language used in grant applications is becoming increasingly hyperbolic, according to a study published last week (August 25) in Open JAMA Network find. The study found that 130 search adjectives were used with an average frequency of 1,378% more in summaries of funded applications from 2020 than those from 1985. “The results of this study should be used to educate applicants, reviewers and funding agencies to the growing prevalence of subjective promotional language in funding applications,” the authors write.
The team, made up of two linguists and a biomedical researcher, began by using software to annotate parts of speech in more than 900,000 summaries in the National Institutes for Health (NIH) funded project archive. They then compared the frequency of adjectives between projects funded in 1985 and those funded in 2020, looking specifically for what they considered to be hype: “hyperbolic and/or subjective language that may be used to glorify, promote or exaggerate aspects of the research,” according to the paper. Although there was no statistically significant difference in the overall prevalence of adjectives between these two years, 1,888 of the descriptors showed marked changes in frequency, including 139 that the researchers deemed exaggerated.
Of those 139, 130 were used more often in 2020 than in 1985, including words like “transformative” and “impactful,” which increased in frequency by 8,190% and 6,465%, respectively. The word “enduring” was more than 25,000% more common in the most recent set of summaries, and some fashionable adjectives weren’t seen at all in 1985, such as “renowned”, “incredible”, ” revolutionary” and “stellar”. Meanwhile, the buzzwords ‘major’, ‘important’, ‘detailed’ and ‘ultimate’ showed some of the biggest drops in frequency.
The team also grouped the 139 buzzwords into 8 semantic categories, finding that the largest increases per million words occurred for words that convey importance (50% increase) and novelty. (207% increase). Overall, the percentage of abstracts containing at least one hype word has increased from 72 in 1985 to 97 in 2020.
Language changes over time, so a change in the popularity of certain adjectives “in itself is neither good nor bad,” the researchers write in their paper. However, they fear that the increased hype in NIH grants is having undesirable effects: “the infusion of salesmanship at this point in the research cascade, even if the promotional language seems being a minor force, can, over time and given the size of the NIH budget, influence the tone and substance of the entire research enterprise,” they argue.
After all, the words themselves “don’t say much,” said co-author and linguist Neil Millar of the University of Tsukuba in Japan. STAT. And other studies have found increased hype in published research, press releases, and science journalism.
The study did not examine potential reasons for the increased hype, but the team writes that the NIH’s emphasis on impact, significance, and innovation is likely putting pressure on scientists to emphasize these aspects of their work given the competition they face for funding and its importance. in obtaining academic appointments and tenure. “Under these circumstances, applicants may feel compelled to echo certain terms of the agency’s advice,” they write.
A table of examples from the article on hype adjectives in context