Claims made in scientific press releases need greater accountability
Transforming the communication of evidence for better health
In the run-up to Evidence Live 2016, the organisers asked health science students, junior doctors, and early career researchers to write about projects or innovative ideas that they have been part of and that deal with some of the conference’s main themes (see the box at the end of this article). This article features one of the five winners who gain a free place to attend the conference in Oxford between 22 and 24 June 2016.
Liam Shaw, second year PhD student, University College London
Researchers are fond of blaming journalists for poor medical reporting. Some of the blame may lie slightly closer to home, however. In December 2014, researchers at Cardiff University published a study analysing the quality of scientific press releases. They found many press releases exaggerated studies’ claims, which was reflected in subsequent media reporting.
The Cardiff researchers didn't name the papers they analysed. But as Ben Goldacre pointed out in a linked editorial in The BMJ, it would be possible to use their published data to identify the “academics and institutions associated with the worst exaggerations and publish their names online.” I decided to take on this challenge.
The project took longer than the spare afternoon estimated by Ben. Extracting information from the Matlab database was more complicated than I had anticipated and the Cardiff team conceded to me via email that the data format was “not ideal.”
I put all my code on GitHub and made a spreadsheet with the assessments of each paper.  One of my favourite studies was from 2011 about ultrasound treatment for leg ulcers with a press release claiming that “laughter is the best medicine.” The resulting misleading media coverage was covered by NHS Choices, but only by looking at the Cardiff study data was it clear that the press release was the source of this exaggeration.
In my analysis I focused on bad press releases, but good ones do exist. Sometimes press releases even link to the scientific paper—but tend not to be vice versa—allowing researchers to dodge responsibility for the quality and accuracy of press releases. Linking to press releases from journal articles would embarrass scientists with bad press releases and stop them passing the buck to press officers. A culture of accountability for the claims made in press releases would reduce the risk of the public being misled and making decisions that are bad for their health.
Evidence Live 2016 conference themes
- Improving the quality of research evidence
- Disentangling the problems of too much and too little medicine
- Transforming the communication of evidence for better health
- Training the next generation of leaders in applied evidence
- Translating evidence into better quality health services
- Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, et al. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ 2014;349:g7015. doi:10.1136/bmj.g7015 pmid:25498121.
- Goldacre B. Preventing bad reporting on health research. BMJ 2014;349:g7465. doi:10.1136/bmj.g7465 pmid:25498123.
- Github. https://github.com/liampshaw/pr.
- Choices NHS. Laughter, ultrasound and leg ulcers. www.nhs.uk/news/2011/03March/Pages/laughter-ultrasound-treatment-leg-ulcers.aspx.