Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Scientists Love Adverbs or: What Would This Look Like for Organic Chemists?

Over on his blog, bioinformatician Neil Saunders wrote up a nifty little analysis of adverbs in scientific manuscripts. I wonder how it would look if he had only looked at chemistry papers.

Everyone has read enough scientific manuscripts to know the general formula for writing. And boy, do we love to use unnecessary adverbs. "Interestingly", "selectively", "gratifyingly", and all the rest really do nothing to add to the science, they just make the paper sound more flowery. Out of nearly 92000 abstracts from PubMed, Saunders found 710 unique adverbs. My personal favorites include "tinctorially" (1 use), "ophthalmoscopically" (1 use), "postoperatively" (243 uses), and "importantly" (4511 uses, because you the reader couldn't figure out it was important).

Saunders also looked at the top 20 opening adverbs, and he found that "recently" is the best we can do. It looks like all of the top five adverbs refer to the current state-of-the-art in a given area of research.

What would this look like if the analysis was for chemists? I went ahead and opened up a few JACS abstracts from 2013 to see for myself. Here are the results of my once again non-scientific investigation.

Recently: 49
Finally: 39
Importantly: 31
Commercially: 28
Additionally: 26
Interestingly: 20
Potentially: 19
Notably: 18
Theoretically: 12
Unlikely: 4
Mechanistically: 2

Also, just for fun, I looked at which authors are the most "adverb-happy" over the last several years of JACS abstracts.

Recently: Alanna Schepartz (10)
Finally: Dirk Guldi, K.C. Nicolaou (9)
Importantly: Dirk Guldi, Edward Solomon (9)
Commercially: Amir Hoveyda (22)
Additionally: Steve Buchwald (7)
Interestingly: Hung-wen Liu (6)
Potentially: Qiao-Sheng Hu (5)
Notably: Michael Krische (7)
Theoretically: Shigeyoshi Sakaki (14)
Unlikely: Mark Gordon (3)
Mechanistically: Waldemar Adam, Phil Baran (3)

So I guess we know which words we need to throw into our abstracts in order to get our papers published in high-impact journals! Good luck with that.


  1. 710 unique adverbs? You might notice from his own post that there are some non-adverbs there, eg.: "Hepatosplenomegaly", "Holoprosencephaly". Just sayin'...

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