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I am writing a formal text (thesis) and I would like to use the formulation

... results must be taken with a grain of salt.

Although it seems that it is used in scientific papers (see this question), I am not entirely sure if this phrase is formal enough.

My question is: would you use the phrase? And if not, what are similar expressions that convey the same meaning?

Edit: Some answers suggest that the origin of the data is important. I would like to comment on my own results.

  • Be careful how you use idioms. It is more usually "with a pinch of salt" as silently corrected in answers. – Weather Vane Jul 28 at 9:50
  • @WeatherVane both variants seem to be in common use, or at least understandable. – Maciej Stachowski Jul 28 at 9:56
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I published my first scientific papers in the '70s, so I probably represent an elderly and conservative view on this. However, I would not use an idiomatic phrase like "pinch of salt" in a scientific paper - though I'd certainly use it in an appropriate context, in a conference presentation. I expect to see formal language in a published paper. Depending on your exact opinion of the results in question, alternatives to your phrase might be:

"these results must be viewed with caution because..."

"The significance of the results is questionable..."

or in an extreme case

"the results reported are inconsistent with well-established spectral data reported by several researchers [17-23], suggesting that the experimental procedure was flawed"

Of course, whatever wording you use, you must justify it!

I recall seeing a paper some years ago, pointing out a succession of inconsistencies in data presented in an earlier publication (by a different author), and ending with words to the effect "results reported in XXX should be trusted after, but not before, independent verification"

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There's nothing wrong with using a more casual idiom or two, especially in the abstract or conclusions section where it can help to present your point of view concisely without interfering with the presentation of the facts.

For example, Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science, a fairly high-profile article published in Science, doesn't shy away from phrases like:

However, innovative ideas become old news fast.

That said, you should use such rhetorical devices sparingly so as not to make the overall tone of your article or paper unprofessional. And if presenting the facts, you should probably demonstrate what the problem is and why the results are not reliable.

(Also, for the sake of your paper, you probably shouldn't use the phrase to refer to your results...)

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Ask yourself "why do I want to use this formulation". If it is because this is the best, most clear and elegant way of expressing yourself then you can leave it in. If, on the other hand, it is just because you want to demonstrate that you know an English idiom, then leave it out.

You will need justify the claim either way. The expression means that you are sceptical of someone's results. That implies that you think the results may be bad, which is a strong claim that will require evidence.

White et.al. found that the velocity dispersion of stars in the central region was 7.8km/s, but this result should be taken with a pinch of salt, as it was made using data that was uncorrected for effects of dust scattering in the core nebula.

(The above is not real science, just an example of the style)

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