Education And Debate

Commentary: Scientific heads are not turned by rhetoric

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.310.6985.987 (Published 15 April 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:987
  1. Trisha Greenhalgh, medical writera
  1. a London N3 2ED

    Dear Dr Horton,

    When I read a scientific paper, either for its own sake or when wearing an editorial hat, I usually drink in the introduction (to whet my appetite for the subject matter), skim the methods, eyeball the figures and tables, and then read every word of the discussion. Then I go back to the methods and results sections and weigh the rhetoric of the authors' conclusions against my own assessment of the objectivity and general value of their work. Why do I do it that way? Because if I concentrated on the structured and measurable bits to the exclusion of the rest, I would be flat out, dead, under the table from boredom.

    The reason that your paper worries me is that, having drawn attention to the “'spin' that authors place on their work,” you then entice the reader into the unjustified assumption that this spin is necessarily evil, insidious, and the last remaining bastion of caprice in the otherwise objective terrain of scientific publication. What sort of a word is “spin”? What exactly do we doctors do when we talk or write about our own research? We enthuse, we speculate, we harp back to yesterday's theories, we formulate tomorrow's hypotheses, and we pat ourselves on the back for working so hard. But do we spin? Is the order of our sentences, or the tense we use to present them, able to distort …

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