Friday, September 14, 2012

The PR for Medical Research is Overhyped??? You Don't Say

A new report (open access - and be sure to download the full pdf file) has reached a conclusion that should be pretty much obvious to anyone who has ever bothered to actually read the research that is covered by the mainstream media: it is overhyped. Not just in the PR releases, but even in the abstracts of the papers too.
"‘‘Spin’’ was identified in 17 (41%) abstracts, 19 (46%) press releases, and 21 (51%) news items."
They even give an explicit example of how a report on acupuncture in breast cancer patients that showed no statistical significance ended up being reported (in the abstract, the PR release and the mainstream media) as showing a reduction in hot flashes and improved sex drive for the patients!

This report focused on just medical research arena, but even in the fields of polymers and chemistry, the same insanity occurs, albeit probably to a smaller degree. I've discussed numerous examples of this over the years, including such overhyped claims of the invention of the perfect polymer, or cashiers having higher doses of BPA in their urine, both of which were not supported by their own research. In all these cases, you don't have to have inside knowledge of the field of research. You just have to read the articles, see what conclusions the researchers reach, and then compare them to the hype [*]. Sure, some of the articles do have tremendous amounts of jargon and technical details that can scare you away, but the analysis and conclusions are written with a great amount of non-jargon that anyone with a high school education can read.

I am never surprised by the overhyping that occurs in PR blurbs, as these blurbs are released by the PR department and not the researchers themselves, although I think that the researchers, en masse would have enough weight to have some serious influence over that department. But the fact that abstracts will also overexaggerate is what I found to be really bothersome. This indicates not only poor reviewing of the paper by the referees, something that is entirely unnecessary and avoidable, but also some complicity on the part of the authors. All of this leads to a further degradation of science in the public's eye, and we have only ourselves to blame.

[*] I always spend the extra time whenever I review research to ensure that my posts have the needed links so that everyone can read the articles and reach their own conclusions about what I am saying. It's a hassle, but it is necessary in my mind to maintain credibility (and why I try to focus as much as possible on free/open access articles).


Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I agree that the overhype of abstracts is bad news but I have to say that it is not entire the authors fault. High impact journals (on which the likelihood of tenure lies) look for novelty and exciting results. Many papers get rejected only based on reviewers' comments about "abstract/manuscript no conveying the novelty", or even if the novelty is acknowledged on the fact that the manuscript has no "story" or no tone (sic). Hence, one has to evolve and master the "scientific-marketing" language. Unfortunately, once you're tenure, there're PhD students or postdoc that also need to climb the ladder so it never stops.


John said...

Hi Raquel,

Thanks for the comments. When I am reviewing papers, I (try to!) always make sure that the abstract aligns with the paper, but as I mentioned, I think this sort of thing is much less prevalent in our field(s) than in the medical sciences.

Also, I do think that political pressure is increasing on making research appear important. Too many people running for office in Washington hold up examples of research on seemingly unimportant topics as an example of government waste that they will work oh so hard to cut (unless the research happens to be in their state/district!).

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Our field does not involve life-or-death results, so the hype is not that extensive. Though, I still find papers trying to sell me the best polymer ever invented...

I wish there was political pressure in my country on the importance of research. All politicians over here (Spain) claim research is the way forward, "the only way we can come out of our situation", but then the first thing they do is to trim the research budget 35%, among other cuts to researchers. I wish it will not happen over there.

Nice blog by the way,

Anonymous said...

Straight to the point and well written! Why can't everyone else be like this?