Is an experiment more dangerous than a study?

If two words or phrases are synonymous to the point of interchangeability, then they should provoke the same reaction. Shouldn’t they? Not necessarily.

A recent study named Informed Consent and Parents’ Willingness to Enroll Their Children in Research (which is also, rather predictably, the subject of the study) found that parents were likely to avoid some studies. Based on the terms used to describe them.

Using the terms “research study,” “research project,” “medical study,” and “medical experiment”, they asked 94 parents how they understood the terms. Whether the term used would affect their willingness to participate in the trial. Although the terms were judged to be synonymous by the researchers carrying out the study, 82% of parents asked did not consider this to be the case. In fact, they judged the words ‘medical’ and ‘experiment’ to have negative connotations. The term most parents responded well to was “research study”. Over half of the participants thought that the difference in terms corresponded to varying levels of risk.

The researchers involved in this project have now recommended that more neutral terms be used in consent forms in future.

You may be wondering why I’m telling you this.

Are the results of this study shocking? Or even surprising? Perhaps not. But the study does raise an issue which a lot of us overlook most of the time. That is what words make us say. It’s something that many writers have struggled with over the years. But a consideration many non-linguists don’t always make. Now I’m not saying that we should all tiptoe around one another when it comes to our language, but perhaps we should be aware of the effects our lexical choices can have. Plus, I think there have been a lot of research projects over the years that might have benefited from a few more participants.