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Adjectives and adverbs in life sciences across 50 years: implications for emotions and readability in academic texts

Abstract

Writing in a clear and simple language is critical for scientific communications. Previous studies argued that the use of adjectives and adverbs cluttered writing and made scientific text less readable. The present study aims to investigate if the articles in life sciences have become more cluttered and less readable across the past 50 years in terms of the use of adjectives and adverbs. The data that were used in the study were a large dataset of 775,456 scientific texts published between 1969 and 2019 in 123 scientific journals. Results showed that an increasing number of adjectives and adverbs were used and the readability of scientific texts have decreased in the examined years. More importantly, the use of emotion adjectives and adverbs also demonstrated an upward trend while that of nonemotion adjectives and adverbs did not increase. To our knowledge, this is probably the first large scale diachronic study on the use of adjectives and adverbs in scientific writing. Possible explanations to these findings were discussed.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to extend their sincere gratitude to the Editor and reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions.

Funding

The research is supported by the Social Science Fund of Sichuan Province (Grant No. SC21WY002), and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of Chongqing University (Grant No. 2021CDSKXYWY001).

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Correspondence to Lei Lei.

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Conflict of interest

The authors have no financial or non-financial interests to disclose.

Ethical approval

The data that were used in the study are open-access texts of journal articles. The authors have no ethical issues to report.

Appendices

Appendix 1

Statistics of the normed frequency of adjectives and adverbs by year.

Year Abstract count Sentence count Word count Normed frequency of adjectives Normed frequency of adverbs
1969 2191 10,852 259,253 110,305.377 33,530.952
1970 2471 12,059 280,835 109,345.345 32,673.990
1971 2383 13,110 320,681 109,005.523 33,946.508
1972 2661 14,481 354,896 107,735.787 33,728.191
1973 2655 15,553 378,530 105,846.300 34,512.456
1974 2915 17,923 441,520 106,683.729 34,143.414
1975 6013 35,220 834,372 114,414.194 33,346.037
1976 6569 38,301 907,413 115,460.105 33,746.486
1977 6697 38,783 914,140 115,380.576 33,281.554
1978 7141 41,879 992,813 114,476.744 32,864.195
1979 7509 46,172 1,101,411 113,319.188 33,283.670
1980 6704 40,273 958,885 117,020.289 33,847.646
1981 6515 41,517 982,370 118,041.064 33,440.557
1982 6378 40,159 952,118 118,006.382 32,909.786
1983 8023 50,429 1,197,381 117,843.861 33,691.866
1984 8073 52,176 1,243,012 118,601.429 33,784.871
1985 8346 55,880 1,348,290 118,372.160 33,738.291
1986 10,243 69,356 1,670,085 114,610.334 32,982.752
1987 10,706 73,126 1,761,488 115,227.580 32,990.290
1988 11,649 80,414 1,943,114 113,724.671 32,841.614
1989 12,183 83,274 2,021,074 113,713.798 32,641.556
1990 13,006 89,291 2,162,718 113,861.816 32,553.019
1991 13,500 91,396 2,215,648 114,117.405 32,452.357
1992 13,928 92,485 2,230,334 113,005.944 32,355.692
1993 14,683 96,375 2,311,135 112,639.461 32,721.152
1994 15,361 100,652 2,416,959 112,514.528 32,309.195
1995 15,677 101,770 2,443,096 112,969.363 32,581.200
1996 16,319 104,546 2,520,642 113,668.661 32,937.244
1997 15,164 98,217 2,363,939 114,300.327 33,100.685
1998 18,185 117,633 2,814,808 113,526.749 33,739.424
1999 19,284 122,081 2,893,942 116,885.895 33,856.587
2000 21,231 135,541 3,216,167 116,684.861 34,154.943
2001 20,884 134,052 3,198,701 117,050.953 34,542.460
2002 22,269 143,330 3,409,739 117,079.636 34,551.618
2003 23,222 149,920 3,571,855 118,674.190 34,272.388
2004 23,345 147,665 3,515,789 119,332.247 34,818.358
2005 24,665 153,755 3,679,748 119,691.077 34,954.839
2006 24,177 151,847 3,614,026 120,070.249 35,224.428
2007 25,130 160,054 3,840,189 120,804.471 35,488.357
2008 23,667 149,143 3,565,770 121,508.398 35,772.638
2009 29,785 209,251 4,831,865 120,126.908 38,055.492
2010 25,584 161,111 3,844,128 123,341.106 36,096.093
2011 27,642 167,382 3,958,607 124,861.852 36,483.541
2012 25,379 157,877 3,774,697 124,437.538 36,265.427
2013 24,934 156,132 3,746,919 125,038.732 36,509.997
2014 24,759 154,645 3,721,394 125,971.880 36,883.222
2015 24,193 151,299 3,618,925 127,550.032 37,189.773
2016 24,283 143,350 3,395,061 129,193.850 37,202.572
2017 24,412 143,958 3,359,407 131,230.006 37,651.883
2018 24,322 140,066 3,248,201 131,329.003 37,475.821
2019 18,441 106,380 2,472,954 130,746.063 37,320.549

Appendix 2

The overall trajectory of the use of adjectives and adverbs

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Wen, J., Lei, L. Adjectives and adverbs in life sciences across 50 years: implications for emotions and readability in academic texts. Scientometrics 127, 4731–4749 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-022-04453-z

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Keywords

  • Scientific writing
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Emotion
  • Readability