Use buzzwords to be cited, study suggests

Is 'robust' the new 'clustering'? Hannah Fearn on an anthropologist spotting trends in vocabulary

August 28, 2008

Academics who use fashionable "buzzwords" in their research papers could enhance their reputations as their work is cited more often by their peers, a new study suggests.

Research from Durham University has found that keywords used by academics to search online for research papers are often copied in the same way that buzzwords are copied in day-to-day language.

In his research paper "Random drift versus selection in academic vocabulary", anthropologist Alex Bentley suggests that buzzwords can lead to whole new bodies of theory, even when the words themselves lack clear meaning.

"I have come to feel that in the social sciences you get bodies of theory that I suspect actually started from a buzzword. A lot of those words don't have concrete meaning," Dr Bentley said.

One example he cites is the word "agency". "The word drifted up and at some point it reached a level where people are using this adjective so much they created a theory ... It does have an impact on academic progress and success."

Dr Bentley speculated that the phenomenon can impact on rates of citation - the number of times an academic's published work is cited by peers.

Citations counts will be used to help judge research quality and determine the distribution of billions of pounds in funding under the research excellence framework that will replace the research assessment exercise.

"These buzzwords will help you to get cited," said Dr Bentley. But he argued that the relationship between buzzwords and citations needed further study.

"It's a bit of a chicken and an egg problem (in deciding) whether using something that's on its way up is causing you to get more citations."

Dr Bentley's paper, published this month in the journal PLoS ONE, found that there was more evidence of buzzword fashion victims in the social sciences than the physical sciences.

In the social sciences, the top five key words "drift" in prevalence, but in the physical sciences they follow more of a pattern.

"To me that's one sign that maybe in the physical sciences they are zooming in on real phenomena," Dr Bentley said.

He contrasted the word "feminist", whose prevalence in research papers rises and falls over 15 years, with "cold fusion", which peaked in 1990 before going out of fashion when experiments in the late 1980s to find the potential new energy source could not be replicated.

Graham Crow, professor of sociology at the University of Southampton, said he agreed that there were trends in key words, but he disputed any suggestion that the social sciences were more at risk of buzzword copying.

"It's partly going to be fashion but it's also (a fact that) if you generate a debate about which there is a lot of controversy, then you're likely to be using the same concepts," he said.


Rising buzzwords in the social sciences:




Losing popularity in the social sciences:




Rising buzzwords in the physical sciences:




Losing popularity in the physical sciences:

Cold fusion


Self-organised criticality.

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