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Academic Psychology: More Confident, Less Formal

Recent research details stylistic changes in academic psychology writing.

Key points

  • Stylistic changes in academic psychology writing were examined in a corpus of 790,520 psychology article abstracts published between 1970-2016.
  • Personal pronouns (especially first-person plural) became markedly more common over time. Confidence also rose in prominence over time.
  • Exaggerated and persuasive language may lead to overclaiming and spin, making it harder for readers to evaluate claims.

This post was written by Melissa Wheeler, Ph.D., and Nick Haslam, Ph.D.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
Source: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

The content of psychology writing is constantly evolving. New theories and methodologies are introduced and eventually replaced by still newer ones. The prominence of certain topics fluctuates in response to current trends and scientific progress.

But it is not only the content of the psychology writing that evolves. Its style of expression and rhetoric also changes. The aim of psychology writing extends beyond merely reporting research findings; authors also aim to persuade. In attempts to be more captivating, certain elements of language - words that may have the power to influence – are increasingly being adopted in academic writing.

Why Are Authors of Psychological Science Adapting Their Writing Styles?

There are many reasons why psychology writing changes over time. Three factors are likely to be implicated.

The first factor is the pressure to publish. Academics face increasing pressures and high levels of competition to secure research findings, meet rising performance expectations, and demonstrate the impact of their research. In the present ‘publish or perish’ environment, authors can aim to demonstrate the importance and novelty of their findings through the exaggerated, confident, and sometimes hyperbolic language they use. This confidence signals to reviewers and journal editors that the research is worthy of publication.

The second factor is the growing importance of science communication. The general public is far more engaged with academic research than ever before. Academics are encouraged to pitch their work to media outlets and generate a media buzz to coincide with the publication of a paper.

The third factor is growing informality. As academics continue to write for popular audiences, formality in writing decreases, making the writing more personal and accessible.

Impact on Writing Style

Our recent study tested three predictions about how psychology writing has shifted over time (Wheeler, Vylomova, McGrath, & Haslam, 2021). The first two factors (pressure to publish and importance of science communication) should lead to more confident and exaggerated writing as authors adopt a more forceful style of expression to increase their chances of getting published and attracting media attention.

The second (science communication) and third (informality) factors should increase the accessibility of scientific writing, producing a more engaging and colloquial style. The decrease in informality should also increase the use of first-person pronouns (i.e., ‘I,’ ‘we’) and decrease the use of passive voice (e.g., ‘a study was conducted’ changes to ‘we conducted a study).

To test these predictions, we analyzed a corpus of 790,520 psychology abstracts published from 1970 to 2016 using a linguistic content analysis software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC; pronounced ‘Luke’). LIWC computes indices of Analytical Thinking (language that is logical and consistent), Clout (language that is confident, powerful, and high-status), Authenticity (language that is self-disclosing and not guarded or detached), and Emotional Tone (language with a positive, upbeat expression), as well as indices of personal pronoun use (i.e., first-person singular and plural, second-person, and third-person singular and plural).

Findings

Only Clout showed a significant rise over the four indices, increasing 24 percent over the 46-year study period. Analytical Thinking showed a gentle decline, and Authenticity and Emotional Tone remained stable. This suggests that between 1970 and 2016, academic psychology writing has become increasingly confident.

Changes in pronoun use were more striking. There was a 92 percent increase in personal pronouns over the study period, largely driven by the first-personal plural pronouns ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our.’ This reflects a less formal, more journalistic style of writing, where authors are placing themselves in the narrative and becoming more personally involved in communicating their research. Interestingly, the steep rise in first-person pronouns predated the change to adopt personal pronouns recommended by APA style, suggesting it largely reflects broad shifts in language use rather than a specific piece of advice.

Two Sides of the Coin

On the positive side, less formal and more accessible psychology writing enables policymakers, the media, and the general public to read psychological research for themselves. It allows them to delve deeper into the findings and share and discuss research results within their social groups. But there may be a negative side to these stylistic changes, too. Exaggerated and persuasive language may lead to overclaiming and spin, making it harder for readers to evaluate the claims and accuracy of hyped results critically.

References

Wheeler, M. A., Vylomova, E., McGrath, M. J., & Haslam, N. (2021). More confident, less formal: stylistic changes in academic psychology writing from 1970 to 2016. Scientometrics, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-021-04166-9.

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