Science Writing

To boldly claim

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Science  20 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6459, pp. 1261-1262
DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6459.1261-d

The data should speak for themselves, but writers want a broad swathe of readers to appreciate the significance of the signal they interpret in complex, noisy data, whereas editors want authors to be both concise and to acknowledge the limitations of the data. Analyzing more than 1000 psychology papers, DeJesus et al. found that student readers were most influenced by the amount of generic language used in research summaries. However, phrases like “juvenile male offenders are deficient in emotion processing” tell us nothing about sample size, variations in ethnicity, reason for incarceration, educational achievement, and so on. The risk is that generic language glosses over exceptions to a general rule and distracts from the limitations of the data. Unrepresentative claims can become magnified through the lenses of press releases, reportage and, not least, by editorial summaries like this, in high-profile journals. The consequences may cause harm.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 116, 18370 (2019).

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