Scientists Increasingly Describe Their Research As “Astounding”

The eyebrow-raising finding is just one of several papers published in the British Medical Journal’s traditionally lighthearted Christmas issue

Silly science
The young researchers noted a sharp increase in silly science published during the British Medical Journal's Christmas issue. Leander Baerenz/Westend61/Corbis

Science discoveries can be described as "amazing," "remarkable," and "encouraging," but sometimes those words exaggerate the importance of new findings. Over-eager headline writers aren't the only ones to blame: A new study suggests that scientists are adding more of these overly-positive words to their studies, reports Philip Ball for Nature.

Researchers at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands scanned papers in PubMed, an online database of medical and health-related research papers, for a list of words people are using to describe their research.

They found that between 1974 and 2015, researchers are popping positive-sounding words like "novel," "amazing" and "spectacular"  nine times more frequently in their papers. The analysis also showed a smaller uptick in negative-sounding words like "pessimistic," "futile," and "useless." The team reported their findings in the British Medical Journal.

Why this trend away from more neutral words? "Researchers may be tempted to make their findings stand out from thousands of others—a tendency that might also explain the more modest rise in usage of negative words," Ball writes. The Utrecht team jokingly concludes that "novel" appears to be on such a steep trajectory that every paper on PubMed will use the word by the year 2123.

While the trend may indeed have serious implications for the way that science is understood, the date of the study's publication might explain the purpose behind the analysis. Every year for Christmas, the stodgy-sounding BMJ loosens-up with a series of cheeky studies. The methods mostly remain sound, but the subjects aim to provoke a bit of levity and holiday cheer.

Here's a few of the quirky and chuckle-worthy papers from this year's edition:

Babies get in the way of research, but they aren't all bad newsOne study documented the "surprisingly large number of babies born" to staff running a large clinical trial for stroke rehabilitation. Since trials often span years, researchers are interested in figuring out what potential hang-ups could delay progress. The birth of 120 babies between July 2006 and October 2014 cost the team both time and money. But updates on the baby count reported during the investigators' meetings were enjoyed, which of course was subjectively measured with a "laughometer."

An odd walk is popular with Russian officials. While watching videos of current Russian President Vladimir Putin, a group of neurologists noticed the world leader's tendency to keep his right arm relatively stiff, rather than allowing it to swing. At first they were concerned that it was a sign of some neurological distress or disease like Parkinson's. But further analysis of his judo prowess, weight lifting and swimming didn't show signs of the disease.

A training manual from the former Russian KGB suggests that firearm training might be a cause: "When moving, it is absolutely necessary to keep your weapon against the chest or in the right hand," according to the manual. "Moving forward should be done with one side, usually the left, turned somewhat in the direction of movement." The team dubbed the characteristic walk "gunslinger's gait," a moniker that will likely only add to Putin's public image.

World leaders may be subject to accelerated aging. A study compared the life spans of elected heads of government with that of their unelected runners-up. The researchers examined the lives of 540 leaders and would-be-leaders from 1722 to 2015 in 17 in Australia and New Zealand as well as countries in Europe and North America. They concluded that getting elected might cost candidates 2.7 years of their life.  Given the stress of leading a country, this conclusion can't have come as a surprise.

The "curse of the rainbow jersey" probably doesn't exist. The reigning world champion in cycling traditionally wears a uniform bearing bands of green, yellow, black, red and blue when competing in subsequent races. Yet a handful of accidents that befell champions in the past have led people to suggest that the jersey spells doom. 

To dispel the myth, Thomas Perneger of the University of Geneva used the objectivity of statistics. His analysis considers whether the curse could have come from a "spotlight effect," where the champion's subsequent performances receive extra scrutiny, or the "marked man hypothesis," where rivals target the champion. Neither, he concludes. The less successful season champions often encounter later in their career is simply a case of "regression to the mean"—winning is the odd occurrence and not-winning the norm.

"[M]ost countries remain grossly unprepared" for a zombie apocalypse, Tara C. Smith writes. Smith, of Kent State University, highlights the spread of woefully understudied infections that reanimate human corpses, tackling the epidemiology and pathology of a worldwide-scourge. From the 1973 accidental release of a weaponized Trixie virus on a small town in Pennsylvania to a 2002 epidemic of a rage-type zombie pathogen in the U.K., these diseases are costly for society. She urges the global community to work together to prevent further conflict between the living and the dead.

Of course the zombie paper is a joke. But the goofy studies from the special issue do end up in the research literature and sometimes end up as serious citations without the silly context. Though amusing, please keep your tongue in your cheek as you read the Christmas papers of the BMJ.

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