“Novel.” “Exciting.” “Incredible.” “Devastating.” “Unprecedented.” You name the adjective, and a scientist has probably stuck it into a grant application to score funding.
In semi-official scientific parlance, they’re known as “hype.” And adjectives like these are becoming more common in grant applications, according to a new study. The research, published in JAMA Network Open, found that 130 out of 139 hype adjectives increased in prevalence by an average of over 1,300% percent in successful applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health between 1985 and 2020. Words like “novel,” “critical,” “sustainable,” and “actionable” saw the greatest increases in use.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, scientists use subjective language to promote their work. And while it’s not strictly unethical like data manipulation or more severe forms of spin, those kind of linguistic choices can affect how proposals are evaluated, for better or for worse, said study author Neil Millar from Japan’s University of Tsukuba. But these repeated corporate buzzwords can make a reader cringe when peppered throughout a scientific study. One medical journal editor told Millar that reading the word “novel” was like hearing fingernails on a blackboard.
In the study, Millar and his team analyzed application abstracts from an NIH database of all funded projects over the 35-year span. They coded adjectives as non-hype or hype based on how promotional they were in context, and whether they could be removed or replaced by a less subjective word without altering a sentence’s meaning.
For example, one application stated: “This objective will be accomplished via provision of effective scientific and administrative leadership; development of efficient, innovative core facilities; recruitment of funded, committed investigators; promotion of interdisciplinary approaches and interactive projects; and promulgation of communication, education and training.”
“They don’t actually really say much,” Millar said.
The hype adjectives were organized into broad categories based on their meaning: importance, novelty, rigor, scale, utility, quality, attitude, and problem. Those conveying a proposal’s importance and novelty increased the most over the decades.
On its own, the findings on hype in grant applications may not seem “exciting” or “incredible.” But it’s part of a body of work with wider implications. Millar and his long-term research partner Brian Budgell of the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College have previously looked at the prevalence of hype in randomized control trials and interviewed researchers who learned English as a second language about their use of hype.
Millar is curious about the industry structures that generate hype. One theory he has is that grant money, which at academic institutions can fund much more than the research that earned it, is a major incentive for researchers. Bringing money to a university can create more opportunities and favorable treatment in an extremely competitive field. That structure may encourage applicants to use certain language to inflate the worth of their research.
“We would all be better off if research was done for less money, but the incentives don’t work that way,” he said. “Nobody is going to be rewarded for doing research more cheaply.”
And when such overuse begins at the application stage of research, it could create a pattern of exaggeration that continues through the final paper. This can cloud a reader’s understanding of a study by overestimating its importance or simply muddle one’s understanding with excess words.
And where does the actual language come from? Millar is already at work on his next project to answer that question, too. In some preliminary data analysis of all previous NIH calls for grant applications, he found that all of the hype adjectives identified in this month’s study also appear in information from the NIH telling people how to apply for grants. It may be the case that the rise in hype words in applications has happened, in part, because regulators planted the seeds.
As a linguist who now spends so much time studying hype, Millar said he’s become hyper-sensitive about superfluous adjectives, “to the point that it’s a bit silly.” He certainly wouldn’t be caught describing his own findings as “daunting” or “unprecedented.”