Over the last 3 years I have spent countless hours studying child obesity and the surrounding environmental associated factors. One particular feature of research and the publishing culture has particularly stood out to me: The emotive language used to sell research and publish, and the “catch phrases” that get tagged onto papers for years. These phrases seem to have no evidence base, but there is almost an expectation to include them and perpetuate the myth.
We wrongly assume that as science is objective, therefore scientific writing is objective. On the contrary, scientists need to persuade and sell their research to the editor and to the audience. Publications are academic currency and in order to publish well it can be tempting to overstate and oversell results. At the same time, the writer must maintain the appearance of logic and objectivity. This is what some call scientific rhetoric.
Publication or scientific rhetoric is different from rhetoric in other writing styles. Persuasive rhetoric or poetic language is not considered acceptable in scientific writing. Instead scientific rhetoric persuades with objectivity and emphasis of value. Matthew Allen nicely sums this up as “rhetoric that is persuasive through emphasizing logic and objectivity over creativity.”
In my PhD field of Child Obesity, two examples of phrases that regularly stands out to me is ‘child obesity is increasing exponentially’ or ‘child obesity is set to reach alarming levels’. These phrases appear early on in the introduction as a catch phrase to draw the reader in and emphasize the importance of this research. However, my issue with these phrases is that it is not necessarily true in the context of the research being done or the population studied. It has been repeated and referenced to previous research. In many developed countries child obesity is already at alarming levels and has been for awhile, however it has been stable at these levels with trends levelling off over the last years i.e. it is no longer increasing. If we really were to be objective and precise, it never increased exponentially to begin with. That would show a completely different curve.
Scientific literature is smattered with phrases like these, which have been repeated from one paper to the next. They have become almost formulaic and a crutch for the researcher trying to write a persuasive scientific paper.
As long as there is pressure to publish as part of academic careers, this aspect of scientific writing will always be present. In fact, one could argue that rhetoric is an inherent aspect of writing and can´t be separated from the human interpretation and sharing of information. Is this a problem? No, as long as we recognize it, and are transparent in the reporting of data we won´t be losing our objectivity in science. When reading scientific literature, however, we must be knowledgeable of the ’embedded rhetorical strategies’ and learn to read and interpret scientific literature correctly.