I have wanted to write this editorial for years. My motivation comes from the overuse of the word “impact” in manuscripts, grant applications, and scientific presentations. The poor word is simply overworked to the point that it is nearly meaningless. Moreover, its common definitions do not suggest positive attributes, causing me to wonder about our insistence on its use in science.
Look it up. Impact—to fix firmly by or as if by packing or wedging, or to press together; to strike forcefully (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/impact). No, thank you. I do not wish to be firmly fixed or pressed or forcefully struck. I do not mind something having a direct effect on me; please say that instead.
I understand that some scientists reading this editorial may insist their work is certain to have an “impact” on our health and well-being; some scientists may claim their work has already “impacted” the lives of many. I hope not. To be impacted is to be strongly or directly affected by something especially in a negative way; you are impacted if you are packed or wedged in or deeply entrenched and not easily changed or removed (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/impacted). I do not find these to be desirable or pleasant conditions. Consider this: You may have an impacted tooth, one that is wedged between the jawbone and another tooth. That hurts. Other examples of impacted are equally unpleasant. Many years ago, when I was a nurses’ aide in a nursing home, I had to “disimpact” patients who had become fecally impacted. The impaction was certainly unpleasant for the mostly older adult patients; the disimpaction process was also unpleasant for them, although, when over, I am sure there was relief. But again, no thank you; I prefer not to be impacted. On the other hand, your research may hopefully and, perhaps, very likely affect, motivate, or inspire me. Your work may also shape or change policy and practice. Those would be excellent outcomes.
Then there is the so-called word, “impactful.” I understand it is in the dictionary even though not everyone thinks it should be, and I personally think it is a shame that it is. As has been pointed out on numerous blogs and in other editorial writing, besides the concern that the word sounds wrong, it is illogical. The suffix (-ful) means “full of.” However, impact is not a quantity, so it cannot fill anything. Beyond that, the issue for many with the word impactful, including me, is that it just is not necessary when influential is such a wonderful word and, in fact, is the definition of impactful. I would prefer to be influential rather than impactful, especially given the negative connotation of impact.
I am aware that the National Institutes of Health promote the idea of scientific impact. However, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find a definition of impact on the National Institutes of Health website. A group of Australian researchers recently completed a systematic review in search of a conceptual definition of impact (Alla, Hall, Whiteford, Head, & Meurk, 2017). What they found was that impact was rarely defined, and when it was, the definitions lacked consistency and primarily originated from research or funding institutions. The authors identified four main categories of definition: contributions to society and the economy; effects on economy, society, culture, public policy, health, or the environment; quantifiable data such as citation frequency; and influence on further research or policy. I like the words contribute, effect, quantify, and influence. I hope to see these words in research papers submitted to Nursing Research.
Kathleen Parker, columnist for the Washington Post, recently wrote about her list of words she wished would be banned. I thought her list was a good one, although impact was not on it and not everything on her list annoys me as much as the word impact does (Parker, 2017). Ms. Parker and I agree that nouns that have become verbs are annoying. “Gifted” is an example of a noun used as a verb; it means being “given” as a gift. I do not particularly like the sound of that especially when we consider that the word may have originated to describe the gifting of young girls to wealthy men as a favor. I have seen this word used in published papers.
“Reach out” and “share” are words that made Ms. Parker’s list as well as mine. I had never experienced being “reached out” to before moving to the Midwest; it took me awhile to realize that the speaker meant they would be getting in touch with me. I am getting used to being the recipient of reaching out, but I don’t intend to use the phrase, especially in scientific writing (yes, I have seen it used in both manuscripts and grants). I have admittedly “shared” information when I should have just told somebody something; I will claim I felt pressured to share rather than tell, as sharing seems much less didactic than telling. However, I have now stopped sharing; from now on, I intend to just tell.
I am personally guilty of using the phrase “just sayin” in colloquial speech. This is a phrase on Ms. Parker’s do-not-use list. I do not use this phrase in manuscripts or grants even though I have been known to speak it from the podium when I thought a chuckle was needed. I apologize for that lapse of judgment. I am working on breaking my habit.
A term I recently started hearing and seeing in manuscripts is “learnings.” It is not a word; it cannot be found in any dictionary. The term started appearing around 2000 in business circles, particularly in phrases such as “key learnings.” The term sounds ungrammatical, and in fact, it is used as an example of broken English in the comedy of Borat (see Borat et al., 2006). I feel fairly confident that most of us would not want our carefully constructed scientific papers to be classified as broken English or any other broken language. Better than describing “learnings,” authors are asked to please discuss lessons learned or simply lessons, discoveries, findings, and insights.
I am not posing a ban on these or any other words; we all know where that will lead. I am also not suggesting that you not use these words, although if you used them in a paper accepted for publication in Nursing Research, you may find some editorial revisions. What I am hoping is that all of us carefully consider the words we use in our scientific writing and speaking. I am hoping we will learn to limit our use of colloquial expressions and workplace jargon. Most of all, I am hoping that our research will result in meaningful insights that will have positive effects on health and well-being. That is the type of science we want to publish in Nursing Research.