101 Terms for Denigrating Others’ Research

In scholarly terms, a review of the literature or literature review is a summation of the previous research conducted on a particular topic. With a dismissive literature review, a researcher assures the public that no one has yet studied a topic or that very little has been done on it. Dismissive reviews can be accurate, for example with genuinely new scientific discoveries or technical inventions. But, often, and perhaps usually, they are not.

A recent article in the Nonpartisan Education Review includes hundreds of statements—dismissive reviews—of some prominent education policy researchers.* Most of their statements are inaccurate; perhaps all of them are misleading.

“Dismissive review”, however, is the general term. In the “type” column of the files linked to the article, a finer distinction is made among simply “dismissive”—meaning a claim that there is no or little previous research, “denigrating”—meaning a claim that previous research exists but is so inferior it is not worth even citing, and “firstness”—a claim to be the first in the history of the world to ever conduct such a study. Of course, not citing previous work has profound advantages, not least of which is freeing up the substantial amount of time that a proper literature review requires.

By way of illustrating the alacrity with which some researchers dismiss others’ research as not worth looking for, I list the many terms marshaled for the “denigration” effort in the table below. I suspect that in many cases, the dismissive researcher has not even bothered to look for previous research on the topic at hand, outside his or her small circle of colleagues.

Regardless, the effect of the dismissal, particularly when coming from a highly influential researcher, is to discourage searches for others’ work, and thus draw more attention to the dismisser. One might say that “the beauty” of a dismissive review is that rival researchers are not cited, referenced, or even identified, thus precluding the possibility of a time-consuming and potentially embarrassing debate.

Just among the bunch of high-profile researchers featured in the Nonpartisan Education Review article, one finds hundreds of denigrating terms employed to discourage the public, press, and policymakers from searching for the work done by others. Some in-context examples:

  • “The shortcomings of [earlier] studies make it difficult to determine…”
  • “What we don’t know: what is the net effect on student achievement?
    -Weak research designs, weaker data
    -Some evidence of inconsistent, modest effects
    Reason: grossly inadequate research and evaluation”
  • “Nearly 20 years later, the debate … remains much the same, consisting primarily of opinion and speculation…. A lack of solid empirical research has allowed the controversy to continue unchecked by evidence or experience…”

To consolidate the mass of verbiage somewhat, I group similar terms in the table below.

(Frequency)   Denigrating terms used for other research
(43)   [not] ‘systematic’; ‘aligned’; ‘detailed’; ‘comprehensive’; ‘large-scale’; ‘cross-state’; ‘sustained’; ‘thorough’
(31)    [not] ‘empirical’; ‘research-based’; ‘scholarly’
(29)   ‘limited’; ‘selective’; ‘oblique’; ‘mixed’; ‘unexplored’
(19)   ‘small’; ‘scant’; ‘sparse’; ‘narrow’; ‘scarce’; ‘thin’; ‘lack of’; ‘handful’; ‘little’; ‘meager’; ‘small set’; ‘narrow focus’
(15)   [not] ‘hard’; ‘solid’; ‘strong’; ‘serious’; ‘definitive’; ‘explicit’; ‘precise’
(14)   ‘weak’; ‘weaker’; ‘challenged’; ‘crude’; ‘flawed’; ‘futile’
(9)    ‘anecdotal’; ‘theoretical’; ‘journalistic’; ‘assumptions’; ‘guesswork’; ‘opinion’; ‘speculation’; ‘biased’; ‘exaggerated’
(8)    [not] ‘rigorous’
(8)    [not] ‘credible’; ‘compelling’; ‘adequate’; ‘reliable’; ‘convincing’; ‘consensus’; ‘verified’
(7)    ‘inadequate’; ‘poor’; ‘shortcomings’; ‘naïve’; ‘major deficiencies’; ‘futile’; ‘minimal standards of evidence’
(5)    [not] ‘careful’; ‘consistent’; ‘reliable’; ‘relevant’; ‘actual’
(4)    [not] ‘clear’; ‘direct’
(4)    [not] ‘high quality’; ‘acceptable quality’; ‘state of the art’
(4)    [not] ‘current’; ‘recent’; ‘up to date’; ‘kept pace’
(4)    ‘statistical shortcomings’; ‘methodological deficiencies’; ‘individual student data, followed school to school’; ‘distorted’
(2)    [not] ‘independent’; ‘diverse’

As well as illustrating the facility with which some researchers denigrate the work of rivals, the table summary also illustrates how easy it is. Hundreds of terms stand ready for dismissing entire research literatures. Moreover, if others’ research must satisfy the hundreds of sometimes-contradictory characteristics used above simply to merit acknowledgement, it is not surprising that so many of the studies undertaken by these influential researchers are touted as the first of a kind.

* Phelps, R.P. (2016). Dismissive reviews in education policy research: A list. Nonpartisan Education Review/Resources/DismissiveList.htm
http://nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Resources/DismissiveList.htm

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