The language used in grant applications is becoming increasingly hyperbolic, a study published last week (August 25) in JAMA Network Open finds. The team reports that 130 research-hyping adjectives were used at a 1,378 percent higher frequency on average in funded application abstracts from 2020 than in those from 1985. “The findings in this study should serve to sensitize applicants, reviewers, and funding agencies to the increasing prevalence of subjective, promotional language in funding applications,” the authors write.

The team, comprised of two linguists and a biomedical researcher, began by using software to annotate the parts of speech in more than 900,000 abstracts in the National Institutes for Health (NIH) archive of funded projects. They then compared the frequency of adjectives between projects funded in 1985 and those funded in 2020, looking specifically for what they considered hype: “hyperbolic and/or subjective language that may be used to glamorize, promote, or exaggerate aspects of research,” according to the paper. While there was no statistically significant difference in the overall prevalence of adjectives between those two years, 1,888 of the descriptors exhibited marked shifts in frequency, 139 of which the researchers deemed to be hype.

Of those 139, 130 were used more often in 2020 than in 1985—including words like “transformative” and “impactful,” which increased in frequency by 8,190 percent and 6,465 percent, respectively. The word “sustainable” was more than 25,000 percent more common in the more recent set of abstracts, and some hype adjectives were not seen at all in 1985, such as “renowned,” “incredible,” “groundbreaking,” and “stellar.” Meanwhile, the hype adjectives “major,” “important,” “detailed,” and “ultimate” showed some of the largest decreases in frequency.

The team also grouped the 139 hype words into 8 semantic categories, finding that the largest per-million-word increases occurred to words that convey importance (50 percent increase) and novelty (207 percent increase). Overall, the percentage of abstracts containing at least one hype word rose from 72 in 1985 to 97 in 2020.

Language evolves over time, so a shift in the popularity of some adjectives “in and of itself, is neither good nor bad,” the researchers write in their paper. However, they express concern that increasing hype in NIH grants could have undesirable effects: “the infusion of salesmanship at this stage of the research cascade, even if promotional language appears to be a minor force, may, over time and in consideration of the substantial NIH budget, influence the tone and substance of the entire research enterprise,” they argue.

After all, the words themselves “don’t actually really say much,” coauthor and linguist Neil Millar of the University of Tsukuba in Japan tells STAT. And other studies have found increases in hype in published research, press releases, and science journalism.

The study didn’t examine potential motives for increasing hype, but the team writes that the NIH’s emphasis on impact, significance, and innovation likely puts pressure on scientists to play up those aspects of their work given the competition they face for funding and its importance in garnering academic appointments and tenure. “Under these circumstances, applicants may feel compelled to echo certain terms from agency guidance,” they write.

Table of examples of hype adjectives in context
A table of examples from the paper of hype adjectives in context
MILLAR ET AL., JAMA NETW OPEN, 5:e2228676, 2022.