Editorials

Preventing bad reporting on health research

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g7465 (Published 10 December 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7465
  1. Ben Goldacre, research fellow
  1. 1London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London WC1E 7HT, UK
  1. ben.goldacre{at}lshtm.ac.uk

Academics should be made accountable for exaggerations in press releases about their own work

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.1

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.

Since coding for exaggeration could be subjective, the authors’ structured appraisal focused on three areas: making causal claims from correlational findings in observational data, making inference about humans from studies on other animals, and giving direct advice to readers about behaviour change. This allowed an …

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