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Cautious language

In writing about your research, you are constantly positioning yourself - often in relation to the work of other researchers, but also in relation to your own data. Discussing results and drawing conclusions involves making claims about interpretation, significance and applicability. This is done within a research tradition where existing knowledge is always being modified in the light of new results. As a researcher, you are expected to distinguish carefully between

  • knowledge you are sure of because you have reliable evidence for it
  • other knowledge you are less sure of
  • other knowledge you think is only within the realms of possibility

Therefore, very strong claims, like the one below, are rare in academic writing

Reducing fat intake lowers the risk of heart disease.

A claim like this, which implies that the statement is true in every case, cannot be supported with evidence. Claims should therefore be specific and precise, and the level of certainty must match the level of evidence.

There are many methods used in academic writing to qualify a claim:

  1. Indicate the degree of probability (note how the claim progressively weakens):
    It is certain that
    It is very probable/ highly likely that
    It is likely that
    It is possible that
    It is unlikely that
    Arow from left to right reducing fat intake lowers the risk of heart disease.

    Reducing fat intake lowers the risk of heart disease.

    Reducing fat intake could/might lower the risk of heart disease.

    Reducing fat intake may lower the risk of heart disease.

  2. Distance yourself a) from the claim:

    Reducing fat intake appears to lower the risk of heart disease.

    It seems that reducing fat intake lowers the risk of heart disease.

    Some researchers suggest that reducing fat intake lowers the risk of heart disease.

    or b) from the data, by showing its limitations:

    Some studies indicate that reducing fat intake lowers the risk of heart disease.

    For this age group, reducing fat intake lowers the risk of heart disease.

    In most of the cases studied, reducing fat intake lowered the risk of heart disease.

  3. Use a qualifying verb:

    Reducing fat intake tends to lower the risk of heart disease.

    Reducing fat intake contributes to lowering the risk of heart disease.

  4. In practice, a combination of these methods is often used:
    The majority of studies indicate that for this age group, reducing fat intake contributes to lowering the risk of heart disease.
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