Are Scientists improvising more?

I’ve gone down the rabbit hole. Last week, I had a look at changing trends in use of “novel” in Science writing and it led me into thinking about other word choices that might be evolving with time.

High up on that list is utilize. The graph is derived from the titles and abstracts from PubMed-indexed articles over the last 40 years; looking at the proportion of all articles published each year for the different versions of utilize. As you can see, pretty flat/slight increase in the 80s, 90s and even 2000s but then suddenly a rapid acceleration.

So, what’s going on?

First let’s ask whether this really is a change in word usage or if it is a change in abstract style. Perhaps the structure of abstracts has shifted in terms of weighting on methods. Are we describing the approaches used more frequently? The word “used” gets used a lot more frequently that utilized, so the next graph is plotted on two axis so we can more easily compare trends. And yes, this shows that there is a change in abstract style BUT the shape of the two curves are very different.

Interesting, isn’t it.

After seeing those data, I wondered if utilize(d) was also becoming more common in general. To go wider, I used Google Ngram analysis of phrases used in books. Utilize(s) actually appears to be going down a bit in books over the same time-period, therefore I infer that this is a science writer shift.

Before we go on, I should say that “used” and “utilized” are not synonyms. Used is more flexible, can be used for any time something is put into action, whereas “utilize” is a specific type of use: it means to use something for a purpose other than what it was designed for.

You use a PCR machine for PCR or you use it as a door stop. You could utilize a PCR machine as a door stop but you can’t utilize a PCR machine for PCR, that’s just what it is for, it has to be use.

The implication of the increased usage of utilization (or is that utilization of utilization?) is that more often experiments are being performed using not quite the right approaches or methods. There is more improvisation or repurposing going on. That could be true. Or perhaps, this it is a greater appreciation that no experiment is perfect. Or maybe it’s an acknowledgement that indirect outcome measures are being utilized as readouts in place of direct measurements; “metabolic activity was utilized as an indirect indicator of cell number”

Probably all of those options are happening. But, I also think that the meaning has changed. The distinction between used and utilized might diminishing and for those that don’t appreciate the nuance, utilized simply sounds better. Maybe it feels more “scientific”.

I wondered how to test this hypothesis; what could be indicative of an author in a “try-hard” mindset? Then it hit me; novel. As discussed last week, novel is being used more frequently than one would anticipate. I interpret some of this uptick as try-harding from an over-selling perspective. So, I had a look to see if those papers which used novel were using utilize/utilized at a same or a different rate than the general background, and, yes, the papers with novel are almost twice as likely to use utilize than those that don’t have novel.

The result above sparked a little debate with some friends: is it possible for someone to “utilize a novel approach” or should it be either “use a novel approach” or “utilize a new approach” as the only two linguistically viable options? Anyway, I digress.

My takeaway from the novel+utilized usage findings is that they support the “trying to sound fancier” hypothesis. This generates two follow up questions; why do that, and is that what we should be doing? I’ll leave those for you to ponder.

What should you use?

English is the lingua franca of science writing. However, the people reading and writing the papers are often using their second language. Nailing precise word usage in a second language is tough. Nuanced differences, like the ones discussed here, are likely to be the hardest areas to get right (as discussed in this Nature career piece here). Using the wrong form of use is unlikely to cause confusion, so perhaps the best option is not to worry about this at all. Too late for me, but save yourselves!


Science writing is also increasingly being read by not specialists. That shift is supported by many journals now including lay abstracts alongside the technical abstracts. Some of the big journals have also taken steps to change some of the standard practices in science writing. For example, Nature and some other journals now advises use of active voice rather than the field-preferred/historical passive voice. Although there are plenty of people (including me) who value the objectivity and appropriate agency of passive voice. Indeed, there are a surprisingly large number of papers defending the passive voice. However, I digress, again.

The simple goal for all researchers is for their work to make a difference. There is no point doing research if no one knows about it! There is also no point, if people read your work and don’t understand it. Choosing to use utilize when using use would be better will likely not make any difference whatsoever on its own. However, if this small decision reflects an overall trend in your writing of deliberately choosing less accessible language when simpler terms would be clearer, then it is probably time to make a wider change toward improving readability.

Most of the time, use “use”, it’s a lovely wee word that you can be safe in knowing that it is correct. Save utilize for situations where you really do want to emphasise that you are improvising/bodging a solution, where that is part of the message you want to convey.

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