Hype or Hope: Effective Scientific Communication in Competitive Landscapes
February 6, 2024
Most of us working in the scientific communication arena are fascinated by science and believe in its power to improve our lives and the world in which we live. Many of us also work with clients who seek to promote the power of their products and services and to increase their share of voice in crowded and competitive markets. As we work to fulfill our passion for science and meet our clients’ needs, how do we effectively raise awareness of the hope that new scientific advances enable without engaging in hyperbole that ultimately undermines our communications objectives?
A study published in JAMA[i] in December 2023 suggests that finding the balance between hope and hype is a challenge not only for communications professionals but for researchers and editors of scientific journals as well. The study, which evaluated the use of 139 hype adjectives in 2.4 million journal abstracts reporting the results of NIH-funded research from 1985 to 2020, found a mean 1,404% increase in the use of 133 of such adjectives. The greatest increases were seen for the words novel, important, key, scalable, unmet, and tailored.
These findings correlated with a previous study[ii] showing an increased use of hype language in related NIH funding applications. This earlier report found that NIH grant applicants increasingly promoted their projects’ significance, novelty, scale, and rigor; the utility of the expected outcomes, the qualities and attitudes of the researchers, and the gravity of the problem the projects seek to address. This was demonstrated by the increased use of words such as “revolutionary,” “ground-breaking,” “sophisticated,” “impactful,” “stellar,” “incredible,” “exciting,” and “devastating.”
As the authors of the most recent JAMA study note, this correlation suggests “that increasing levels of salesmanship may in part be a downstream effect of salesmanship infused during earlier stages of the research cascade.” Perhaps this is inevitable given that 138 out of the 139 defined hype terms were used in announcements that the NIH issues about funding opportunities.
Does its use at the earliest stages of communicating about a research program give scientific communicators license to perpetuate the use of hyperbole in our work? I firmly believe the answer to that is a hard no while acknowledging that more than a few of the hype words noted in these studies appear in my work from time to time. Occasionally I include these words because I am particularly excited about the data being reported; more often, they end up in a finished work product to demonstrate a client’s confidence in the results or to grab the attention of key audiences.
One might argue that the best way to avoid the use of hyperbole in scientific communication would be to simply report the data without the use of adjectives. Yet, no data set exists in a vacuum, and context about these data can add to or alter our understanding of a disease or therapeutic approach. The following approaches can help us (and indirectly our clients) to find an appropriate balance between hype and hope:
- Educating clients about the possible downsides associated with the use of hype language, including the potential to overpromise and underdeliver if further studies don’t support bold claims and the risk of not being taken seriously by savvy members of key audiences.
- Pushing back — politely, of course — when we see the use of hype. We can use our powers as communications professionals to formulate alternative language constructions that can convey hope and excitement while remaining grounded.
- Providing context to support bold statements about novelty, utility, or benefit. If a new discovery or investigational therapy is truly innovative, ground-breaking, or transformative, it should be relatively straightforward to explain why this is the case. Think of this as showing your work on a math exam rather than simply providing the answer to a question.
- If you struggle to achieve an explanation, it’s possible the bold statement may not be warranted, and you should consider points 1 and 2 above.
With AI-based systems making it easier than ever to disseminate health disinformation,[iii] the humans who engage in scientific communication must do our part to ensure accurate and balanced sharing of information that may guide consumer, physician, and investor decision-making. There will always be a fine and variable line between hope and hype. When we are at our best, we can find creative ways to approach that line without crossing it.
[i] Millar N, Batalo B and Budgell B. Promotional Language (Hype) in Abstracts of Publications of National Institutes of Health–Funded Research, 1985-2020. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(12):e2348706.
[ii] Millar N, Batalo B and Budgell B. Trends in the Use of Promotional Language (Hype) in Abstracts of Successful National Institutes of Health Grant Applications, 1985-2020. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(8):e2228676.
[iii] Menz BD, Modi ND and Sorich MJ. Health Disinformation Use Case Highlighting the Urgent Need for Artificial Intelligence Vigilance. JAMA Intern Med. 2024;184(1):92-96.