At first glance, the significance of a piece of research may not be obvious, either from a paper submitted to a journal or from a published article. Its novelty, importance, and future impact are often uncertain, needing time to become clear to the research community.
To improve the reception of your own work, you may be tempted to point out one or more of its virtues within the paper itself. This kind of positive self-evaluation or boosterism (a word with a surprisingly long history) may be viewed more negatively by the intended audience.
By default, reported research is expected to be original. Announcing its newness or novelty can irritate readers, who find it unnecessary and self-promotional, making them less likely to read on.
Here are some examples: from an engineering article, “we believe that this work is the first in the literature”; from a medicine article, “We show for the first time”; from a materials science article, “Our unique approach”; and from another medicine article, “A further novel finding.”
Of course, in some circumstances such claims are justified, as in Watson and Crick’s introduction to their 1953 Nature article on DNA, which led to the award of the Nobel Prize with Maurice Wilkins:
This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.
Since then, the use of “novel” has become much more common in the literature. A quick analysis with Elsevier’s Scopus database suggests a roughly 200 times increase in its frequency of occurrence in research abstracts.
This inflationary effect may also be found within individual articles. For example, in one engineering article, “novel” occurred eight times, as in “novel approach,” “novel finding,” “novel framework,” and so on.
Some journals now ban claims of novelty, and priority too.
In the spectrum of research activity there’s a place for incremental work, but most journals prefer something more substantial. The importance of the work should, however, be evident from the findings and the context. Authors’ unsupported claims may fail to convince readers, who are aware of the potential conflict of interest.
Here are some examples: from a physics article, “Our results are important for a variety of natural and industrial settings”; from a chemical engineering article, “This exciting result provides a strategy”; and from a medicine article, “This result is significant, both from a theoretical and from a practical point of view.”
Unfortunately, objective recognition of these particular claims has not, so far, followed, at least as measured by the number of times other authors have cited the articles. According to Scopus, each has averaged no more than one citation a year over several years, below the expected rate for their research fields.
Promoting other researchers’ findings is another matter, but it too can sometimes lead to escalation. In one psychology review article the word “important” occurred over 50 times in one form or another, as in “important differences,” “important subgroup,” “important tasks,” “important question,” “important correlate,” “important link,” “important implications,” “important weaknesses,” “important advances,” “important context,” “important variables,” and so on.
Excessive promotion, as with excessive caution or hedging, may shift readers’ expectations, so that anything that isn’t labelled important becomes unimportant.
Some research achieves impact only in the longer term, for example, by improving experimental methods or revealing new areas of study. Although predicting future impact is even more hazardous than claiming it for the present, occasionally authors succumb to the opportunity.
Here are some examples: from a materials science article, “we believe these results will have immense practical interest;” from an engineering article, “We believe these results will ultimately answer the questions;” and from a computer science article, “this paper will guide future researchers.”
According to Scopus, each of these articles averaged fewer than two citations a year over several years, though this isn’t to say that some won’t eventually achieve greater impact.
Happily, some authors’ predictions do prove correct. This statement appeared in a 2007 computer science article:
We believe that our results are of both theoretical and practical importance because they open up completely new avenues …
Citations quickly reached over 150 a year, two orders of magnitude greater than with the earlier examples.
With these differing citation rates, it may be hard to decide whether predictions help recognition. But there’s another consideration that points to more harm than good.
Take these two scenarios. First, suppose your article proves a success. Then any claims of future impact may, in retrospect, simply look insightful to readers but add little to the standing of the work. Second, suppose your article doesn’t prove a success. Those contradictory claims may then appear ill-judged and, by association, weaken the authority of the work even further.
If, after all this, you still want to add a prediction, look at Watson and Crick’s hedged phrasing in the conclusion to their Nature article:
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
Understatement, especially when the outcome is rather less assured, has the advantage of accommodating either the article’s success or lack of it, without reflecting on the work itself. But the degree of hedging needs care. Too little is pointless, too much looks insincere.