Writers' Uncertainty in Scientific and Popular Biomedical Articles. A Comparative Analysis of the British Medical Journal and Discover Magazine

PLoS One. 2019 Sep 5;14(9):e0221933. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0221933. eCollection 2019.


Distinguishing certain and uncertain information is of crucial importance both in the scientific field in the strict sense and in the popular scientific domain. In this paper, by adopting an epistemic stance perspective on certainty and uncertainty, and a mixed procedure of analysis, which combines a bottom-up and a top-down approach, we perform a comparative study (both qualitative and quantitative) of the uncertainty linguistic markers (verbs, non-verbs, modal verbs, conditional clauses, uncertain questions, epistemic future) and their scope in three different corpora: a historical corpus of 80 biomedical articles from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) 1840-2007; a corpus of 12 biomedical articles from BMJ 2013, and a contemporary corpus of 12 scientific popular articles from Discover 2013. The variables under observation are time, structure (IMRaD vs no-IMRaD) and genre (scientific vs popular articles). We apply the Generalized Linear Models analysis in order to test whether there are statistically significant differences (1) in the amount of uncertainty among the different corpora, and (2) in the categories of uncertainty markers used by writers. The results of our analysis reveal that (1) in all corpora, the percentages of uncertainty are always much lower than that of certainty; (2) uncertainty progressively diminishes over time in biomedical articles (in conjunction with their structural changes-IMRaD-and to the increase of the BMJ Impact Factor); and (3) uncertainty is slightly higher in scientific popular articles (Discover 2013) as compared to the contemporary corpus of scientific articles (BMJ 2013). Nevertheless, in all corpora, modal verbs are the most used uncertainty markers. These results suggest that not only do scientific writers prefer to communicate their uncertainty with markers of possibility rather than those of subjectivity but also that science journalists prefer using a third-person subject followed by modal verbs rather than a first-person subject followed by mental verbs such as think or believe.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / standards*
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination / methods*
  • Journal Impact Factor
  • Linguistics
  • Medical Writing / standards*
  • Periodicals as Topic / standards*
  • Uncertainty*

Grant support

Funded studies: Zuczkowski, A.; Bongelli, R.; Riccioni, I. This study has been developed within a PRIN project (Scientific Research Programme of Relevant National Interest), prot. 2012C8BJ3X, entitled Certainty and Uncertainty in Biomedical Scientific Communication, funded by the Italian Ministry of University and Research. http://attiministeriali.miur.it/anno-2013/ottobre/dd18102013-1959.aspx. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.