The Power of Promotional Language in Science

by Christoph Grimpe, 14/06/2024

In his keynote lecture at the “Open Innovation in Science” research conference 2024, Professor Brian Uzzi from Northwestern University presented his latest research on the role of promotional language in the adoption of innovative ideas in science. His talk was based on a forthcoming research paper discussing how the merits of innovative ideas are communicated in the scientific community (now published here). Brian Uzzi is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. He also co-directs the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO), and holds professorships in Sociology and the McCormick School of Engineering.

The study conducted a semantic analysis of grant application success, focusing on scientific promotional language, which may convey an innovative idea’s originality and significance. The research examined the full text of tens of thousands of both funded and unfunded grants from three leading public and private funding agencies: the NIH, the NSF, and the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

The findings revealed a robust association between promotional language and the support and adoption of innovative ideas by funders and other scientists. A grant proposal’s percentage of promotional language is associated with up to a doubling of the grant’s probability of being funded. Furthermore, a grant’s promotional language reflects its intrinsic innovativeness.

Interestingly, the percentage of promotional language is predictive of the expected citation and productivity impact of publications that are supported by funded grants. This suggests that promotional language not only helps in securing funding but also contributes to the broader impact and recognition of the research.

The study also included a computer-assisted experiment that manipulated the promotional language in the data. This experiment demonstrated how promotional language can communicate the merit of ideas through cognitive activation, further emphasizing the importance of promotional language in effectively communicating the merits of innovative scientific ideas.

With the incidence of promotional language in science steeply rising, and the pivotal role of grants in converting promising and aspirational ideas into solutions, this research provides empirical evidence that promotional language plays a crucial role in the scientific community.

Uzzi’s research underscores the power of promotional language in driving scientific innovation. It highlights the need for scientists to effectively communicate the merits of their innovative ideas, not just for securing funding, but also for ensuring their ideas are adopted and recognized by their peers. This research is a significant contribution to our understanding of how innovative ideas are communicated and adopted in science, and it opens up new avenues for further research in this area.

The practical implications of Uzzi’s research on promotional language in science are manifold. It highlights the importance of promotional language in grant proposals. Scientists and researchers can leverage this insight to improve their grant writing skills, potentially increasing their chances of securing funding. Moreover, the study underscores the role of promotional language in effectively communicating the merits of innovative ideas. This can guide scientists in how they present their ideas to their peers, funders, and the broader scientific community. By demonstrating the association between promotional language and the adoption of innovative ideas, the research also suggests that effective communication can drive scientific innovation. This can have far-reaching implications for how scientific research is conducted and disseminated. For funding agencies and policy makers, understanding the role of promotional language in the success of grant applications can inform policy and decision-making processes. It can help in devising strategies to ensure that truly innovative ideas are recognized and funded.

At the same time, there are also several ethical considerations related to the use of promotional language in science. While promotional language can help highlight the merits of an idea, it’s crucial that it accurately represents the research. Exaggerating claims or misrepresenting data is unethical and can harm the credibility of the scientist and the scientific community as a whole. Moreover, the use of promotional language should not create an unfair advantage. All researchers, regardless of their ability to use promotional language, should have equal opportunities to secure funding and have their work recognized. In that sense, the use of promotional language should not obscure the limitations or potential drawbacks of the research. It’s important to communicate these aspects transparently to ensure that funders and other scientists can make informed decisions.

The research on promotional language fits well into Uzzi’s overall research program. His work often revolves around understanding the dynamics of social networks and their impact on various aspects of society, including scientific innovation. His work continues to shed light on the complex interplay between social dynamics and scientific achievement, providing valuable insights for both the scientific community and beyond.


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