About choice of words and citation levels

I have been thinking a lot about “labels”, recently – about how they are subjective, and about how they have consequences. For instance, calling July 19th “Freedom Day” doesn’t really mean that Covid-19 is no longer prevalent, or dangerous. Cases, hospitalisations or, indeed, deaths, didn’t dramatically drop between Sunday 18th and Monday 19th. Yet, the “Freedom Day” label has the effect that people are entitled to behave as if that were the case. 

In the words of J L Austin, words get things done. What they get done – i.e., their ‘force’ – depends on the context. I was reminded of this as I was skimming the paper “Writing for Impact in Service Research”, authored by Chahna Gonsalves, Stephan Ludwig, Ko de Ruyter and Ashlee Humphreys

The paper examined how variations in the language used in the papers published in the Journal of Service Research, between 1998 and 2020, influenced the extent to which they were cited by other academics vs by the media. Citations are highly consequential for the professional esteem and the career progression of academics. Hence, if the type of words used have a dramatic impact on a paper’s citability, I want to know how.

Gonsalves and colleagues look at the impact of the following on a paper’s citability:

  • Intensity – defined as the extent to use affective (i.e., positive or negative) words are used, as opposed to neutral language – e.g., surprising change;
  • Immediacy – defined as the extent to which language creates a psychological sense of closeness. This occurs when writers use the present tense and first-person pronouns, and avoid articles and long words.
  • Diversity – defined as the range or “richness” of vocabulary.

It may not surprise you to read that the authors found that the type of words used do, indeed, impact on a paper’s citability. Moreover, they found that the relationship is nonlinear. For instance, using some emotionally charged words may increase the readers’ attention and the paper’s citability; but using too many, or using very strong words, may undermine the authors’ perceived reliability and scientific neutrality. However, they also found that the impact of words on citability is different for academics vs. the media. 

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  • Increasing the level of intensity increases citability by academics until a certain point before decreasing it; whereas the opposite happens with the media;
  • Increasing immediacy decreases citability by academics, but increases citability by the media up until a certain point;
  • Increasing the level of diversity increases citability by academics until a certain point before decreasing it. There isn’t a significant level of correlation between lexicon citability and citability by the media:
Image source

What does this all mean? That the words that we use, when we write, do, indeed, have an impact on whether our content gets noticed and is amplified by these two key audiences (i.e., other academics and the media). However, what helps with one audience, won’t necessarily help with the other

Sigh. There is no winning, is there?

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