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

Fernando Martel Garcia points me to this news article by Ben Goldacre:

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 . . .

The story is pretty much as you’d predict: a lot of the exaggeration comes in the press release.

I remarked that this makes sense. I agree. Of course, this is just a start, as I’m sure a lot of academics would be happy to put their names on various exaggerated claims! See, for example, here, where the researchers in question were very active with the publicity, and in which they dramatically overstated the implications on individual-level behavior that could be drawn from their state-level analysis. The lead research in this case was just a law professor, but still, we’d like to see better.

As this example illustrates, the problem is not necessarily any sort of conscious exaggeration or hype: I assume that the researchers in question really believe that their claims are supported by their data. For that matter, I assume that disgraced primatologist Mark Hauser really believes his theories.

To put it another reason: be skeptical of press releases, not because they’re written by sleazy public relations people, but because they’re written by, or with the collaboration, of researchers who know enough to make a superficially convincing case but not enough to recognize the flaws in their reasoning.

25 Comments

  1. paul alper says:

    Along with (medical doctor and epidemiologist)Ben Goldacre, when it comes to analyzing health and medical pronouncements, the best journalist websites belong to Gary Schwitzer (Healthnewsreview.org)and Susan Perry (Minnpost.com). Many others in the media are often merely uninformed stenographers.

  2. BMGM says:

    Read this untangling of how good science led to a disastrous press release before you hold scientists accountable for press releases written by others.
    http://www.boulderweekly.com/article-13656-fact-to-fiction.html

    • Rahul says:

      Even if the PR guys wrote the release the Professors get to see it before it goes out. Right?

      So why did they not change or object to whatever was misleading?

      • BMGM says:

        No, they didn’t get to see it. Did you read the article in the link? Do you know how communications offices work?

        • Rahul says:

          I cannot claim I know how communication offices work universally, but in the few news releases I was involved in, my boss (the PI on the project) sure insisted that the Media Relations guys run the final copy by him before it was released. In fact, I remember he annoyed some of the PR guys by making nit-picky changes, but at least we never had this we-never-read-what-they-released excuse.

          PS. Yes, I read the article. But it was rather long so I might have missed the relevant part. If so, apologies.

          Can you point out where it explicitly says that the authors never got to see the PR release before release. And if they didn’t why is it so hard for Professors to insist that they are shown the draft?

          It looks like the lady who wrote the press note is standing by what she wrote. In fact, even the PI on the study says later in the article that, “What she [the PR lady] wrote was not incorrect”

          Basically it looks to me that they all were OK with the wording till the uproar & what we are seeing now is post hoc firefighting & damage mitigation.

  3. Keith O'Rourke says:

    Its senior university folks (the VPs) fighting for funding and prestige (students and more funding). Most of them have little choice other than to resign.

  4. Rahul says:

    Sadly, Professors who exaggerate & hype get away with zero repercussions.

    Is there a good reason why we should be softer on them than the plagiarists & data fakers?

  5. pk says:

    Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm:
    http://goo.gl/857BWY

  6. Eli Rabett says:

    The Rabett variation is that all press releases within the last five years need to be attached to any grant proposal.

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