Academics, not journalists, responsible for hyping press releases

A new paper in the British Medical Journal seems to add substance to the view that many academics and their universities put far too much emphasis on self-promotion by means of exaggeration, sensationalism and alarmism. Science by press release seems to be the new paradigm. Rather than journalists it is the supposedly objective academics themselves who “talk up” their own work.

Sumner P, et al. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ 2014; 349: g7015

Results 40% (95% confidence interval 33% to 46%) of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% (26% to 40%) contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% (28% to 46%) contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58% (95% confidence interval 48% to 68%), 81% (70% to 93%), and 86% (77% to 95%) of news stories, respectively, contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 17% (10% to 24%), 18% (9% to 27%), and 10% (0% to 19%) in news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Odds ratios for each category of analysis were 6.5 (95% confidence interval 3.5 to 12), 20 (7.6 to 51), and 56 (15 to 211). At the same time, there was little evidence that exaggeration in press releases increased the uptake of news.

Conclusions Exaggeration in news is strongly associated with exaggeration in press releases. Improving the accuracy of academic press releases could represent a key opportunity for reducing misleading health related news.

Bern Goldacre has an editorial in the same issue of the BMJ. He argues that academics must be made accountable for exaggerations about their own work.

I would go much farther than Goldacre. Merely being accountable is not enough – it is liability that is required. I have long had a “thing” about this lack of liability for scientific misconduct Why cannot a concept of tort or “product liability”apply to scientists?.

Goldacre writes:

For anyone with medical training, mainstream media coverage of science can be an uncomfortable read. It is common to find correlational findings misrepresented as denoting causation, for example, or findings in animal studies confidently exaggerated to make claims about treatment for humans. But who is responsible for these misrepresentations?

In the linked paper (doi:10.1136/bmj.g7015) Sumner and colleagues found that much of the exaggeration in mainstream media coverage of health research—statements that went beyond findings in the academic paper—was already present in the press release sent out to journalists by the academic institution itself.

Sumner and colleagues identified all 462 press releases on health research from 20 leading UK universities over one year. They traced 668 associated news stories and the original academic papers that reported the scientific findings. Finally, they assessed the press releases and the news articles for exaggeration, defined as claims going beyond those in the peer reviewed paper. ……. 

Over a third of press releases contained exaggerated advice, causal claims, or inference to humans. When press releases contained exaggeration, 58% to 86% of derived news stories contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 10% to 18% in news articles when the press releases were not exaggerated.

Academics and their institutions are surrounded and protected by a shield of supposed objectivity and good faith. But in the unprincipled hunt for funding between institutions and for academic advancement among researchers, there is a significant amount of falsified and manufactured research results. And then the shield protects them from having any liability. Accountability – if found out – leads to relatively mild consequences. If liability for the scientific “product” is introduced, then the taking of responsibility and accountability will automatically follow.

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