Scientific facts are far more well-received when delivered in a narrative style — that is, when the writer tells a story, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. The findings show that the most highly cited scientific papers tend to include sensory language and a direct appeal to the reader to take action.
For the study, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) evaluated the abstracts of more than 700 scientific papers on climate change in order to determine what makes a paper influential in its field. But instead of focusing on scientific content, they tried a new approach that many would say is more in the realm of humanities professors than scientists — they looked at writing style.
Psychology and literary theory have long held that if you want someone to remember something, you should communicate it in the form of a story. So the researchers wondered whether scientific papers written in a more narrative style — those that tell a story and appeal to the senses and emotions — might be more influential than those with a drier, more fact-oriented style.
So study leader Annie Hillier, a recent graduate from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at UW and professors Ryan Kelly and Terrie Klinger set out to determine whether this theory would hold up in the realm of peer-reviewed scientific literature.
They discovered that it overwhelmingly did. They found that the most highly cited scientific papers tended to include elements like sensory language, a greater degree of language indicating cause-and-effect, and a direct appeal to the reader for a particular follow-up action.
“The results were especially surprising given that we often think of scientific influence as being driven by science itself, rather than the form in which it is presented,” said Hillier.
Perhaps even more surprising, the researchers noted, was the finding that the highest-rated journals tended to feature articles that had more narrative content.
“We don’t know if the really top journals pick the most readable articles, and that’s why those articles are more influential, or if the more narrative papers would be influential no matter what journal they are in,” said Kelly.
The researchers utilized a crowdsourcing website to evaluate the narrative content of the journal articles. Online contributors were asked a series of questions about each abstract to measure whether papers had a narrative style, including elements like language that appeals to one’s senses and emotions.
The researchers hope these new findings might lead to advances in scientific communication, improving the odds that science might lead the way to better decisions in the policy realm.
Source: University of Washington