The rhetoric of research

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.311.6996.61a (Published 01 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:61
  1. A J Singleton
  1. Research scientist Division of General Practice and Primary Care, St George's Hospital Medical School, London SW17 0RE

    Encourage spin: it provides context

    EDITOR,--The heart of Richard Horton's argument is that the presence of “spin” in a scientific paper is unjustified and serves the illegitimate purpose of empowering the “knowledge” that the author wishes to convey.1 The ensuing debate with Trisha Greenhalgh seems superficial because they discuss legitimacy rather than the underlying assumption that a paper can be categorised into two separate elements, spin and knowledge.

    Horton proposes the use of critical literary analysis during peer review to extract the essence of a paper (its knowledge) by brushing away the author's spin and facilitates the process by suggesting that the author relinquishes his or her authorship. An author, however, does not own words (in answer to Horton's question), for words are common currency. An author could be said to own the configuration of words that makes up his or her paper, but, more relevantly to Horton's argument, an author does not own the meaning that the configuration presents, for readers can generate their own meaning. This is illustrated in the different interpretations of the Eurogast study that Horton and Greenhalgh produce in their debate.

    Phenomenological theorists contend that each person is a self determining thinker who perceives the world from a unique standpoint, and as a consequence the interpretation of a phenomenon relies on the relationship between the interpreter and the phenomenon. Horton misconstrues social science discourse in suggesting that spin provides power; it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that spin provides context. Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum; it is embedded in context, and without context it is meaningless. The removal of spin or the standardisation of spin would merely serve to reduce contextual information available to the reader, reducing the opportunity to generate a meaningful understanding of the knowledge that the author was conveying--the consequence of which for Greenhalgh would be to be “dead, under the table from boredom.”

    Rather than defend against spin, Horton might find it more valuable to encourage it: to ensure that authors' motives are explicitly recorded in papers, as is the case with qualitative studies. Good qualitative papers enable readers conjointly to learn about a phenomenon while learning what that phenomenon means to the author and why.


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