Spin in science writing – 3: Misuse of adjectives

This is my third post about spin in science writing. While the first one discussed inappropriate usage of causal language in reporting observational studies, the second focused on making inappropriate recommendations based on observational study designs.

This post deals with inappropriate usage of adjectives and adjectival phrases in reporting studies in both observational and randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The contents of this post are based on the findings of a study on this topic with regard to randomized trials.

In 2015, a research team published a paper about their findings on the usage of adjectives in 16,789 randomized controlled trial abstracts published in PubMed.

Among many, the most common adjectives and adjectival phrases found in RCTs either in the title or abstracts are as follows:

  • Well tolerated
  • Meaningful
  • Feasible
  • successful
  • usual
  • good

Is it wrong to use adjectives in the abstract?

The use of adjectives in science writing is a double-edged sword. It allows writers to generalize study findings. We should not use that based on the findings of one study.

In 2012, the Medical Publishing Insights and Practices Initiative (MPIP) recommended avoiding the use of adjectival phrases such as, “well-tolerated” and “generally safe”.

I am quoting below some adjective phrases in the context that they have highlighted for us to understand better usage.

  • “The data suggest that the drug ——- is well tolerated by the high-risk patients”
  • “clinically meaningful”
  • feasible
  • demonstrate good clinical efficacy and safety
  • successful treatment

Author: Prasantha De Silva

A specialist in Community Medicine board-certified in Sri Lanka and a research analyst in Canada

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