Bigmilk strikes again

Paul Alper sends along this news article by Kevin Lomagino, Earle Holland, and Andrew Holtz on the dairy-related corruption in a University of Maryland research study on the benefits of chocolate milk (!).

The good news is that the university did not stand behind its ethically-challenged employee. Instead:

“I did not become aware of this study at all until after it had become a news story,” Patrick O’Shea, UMD’s Vice President and Chief Research Officer, said in a teleconference. He says he took a look at both the chocolate milk and concussions news release and an earlier one comparing the milk to sports recovery drinks. “My reaction was, ‘This just doesn’t seem right. I’m not sure what’s going on here, but this just doesn’t seem right.’”

Back when I was a student there, we called it UM. I wonder when they changed it to UMD?

Also this:

O’Shea said in a letter that the university would immediately take down the release from university websites, return some $200,000 in funds donated by dairy companies to the lab that conducted the study, and begin implementing some 15 recommendations that would bring the university’s procedures in line with accepted norms. . . .

Dr. Shim’s lab was the beneficiary of large donations from Allied Milk Foundation, which is associated with First Quarter Fresh, the company whose chocolate milk was being studied and favorably discussed in the UMD news release.

Also this from a review committee:

There are simply too many uncontrolled variables to produce meaningful scientific results.

Wow—I wonder what Harvard Business School would say about this, if this criterion were used to judge some of its most famous recent research?

And this:

The University of Maryland says it will never again issue a news release on a study that has not been peer reviewed.

That seems a bit much. I think peer review is overrated, and if a researcher has some great findings, sure, why not do the press release? The key is to have clear lines of responsibility. And I agree with the University of Maryland on this:

The report found that while the release was widely circulated prior to distribution, nobody knew for sure who had the final say over what it could claim. “There is no institutional protocol for approval of press releases and lines of authority are poorly defined,” according to the report. It found that Dr. Shim was given default authority over the news release text, and that he disregarded generally accepted standards as to when study results should be disseminated in news releases.

Now we often seem to have the worst of both worlds, with irresponsible researchers making extravagant and ill-founded claims and then egging on press agents to make even more extreme statements. Again, peer review has nothing to do with it. There is a problem with press releases that nobody is taking responsibility for.

21 thoughts on “Bigmilk strikes again

  1. Extravagant press releases by academics and universities are a phenomenon that is very striking to anyone coming from a business world. This surprises academics (with no business experience), who contest the observation, but is nonetheless very much my impression based on actual experience.

    Even for penny mining stocks, press releases have to be approved by an independent “qualified person” (geologist,engineer) and are subject to discipline from regulatory commissions. This doesn’t prevent all abuse, but definitely tempers it.

    If one really wanted to temper extravagant academic press releases, one could require that academic press releases be peer reviewed by a qualified independent person – perhaps by including the press release as part of the package being peer reviewed.

    • Stephen:

      My impression is that there is less variance among academic institutions than among businesses, when it comes to the quality of their press releases. Businesses range from the vary cautious (as you describe above) to out-and-out fraudulent, whereas universities seem to work within a narrower range of hype, less restrained than mainstream businesses but more reasonable than the hucksters.

      • Penny mining stocks are not “cautious”. Far from it. The requirement that press releases be approved by an independent qualified person is a legal requirement on penny mining stocks by security commissions.

        In making this comment, I am not comparing the respective virtue of businesses and academics. I am merely pointing out a technique which is effective in another field.

        • Stephen:

          I wasn’t talking about penny mining stocks—actually, I don’t even know what that means! I was just saying that I notice exaggerated press releases from all sorts of universities—Harvard seems neither better nor worse than lesser institutions—whereas it seems there’s more variation in the business world. This has nothing to do with respective virtue. It just seems that, when it comes to press releases, academia shows less variance than business.

        • In any case, I like to hold up Universities to a higher standard, given what the primary goal of a University is.

      • Andrew:

        Can you post an example of US Business Press Release that’d be extreme. An “out-and-out fraudulent” one.

        I don’t seem to get an impression of the higher variance in businesses you describe.

        • Rahul:

          I was thinking of things like Herbalife, or that “One quick tip to get thinner” or whatever it’s called, those various online ads you see: “Stephen Hawking recommends this brain pill!” etc.

  2. [ “There is a problem with press releases that nobody is taking responsibility for” ]

    …. there’s a clear, formal university organization chart that lays out who is responsible for what– and who above is responsible for ensuring that ‘what’ gets done properly. Standard hierarchial management. Very easy to find the “press release” culprit in this case– it’s the UMD Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications. If he’s ducking his responsibility, it’s his boss also at fault… and on up the chain.
    If there is a problem with that practical management chain, it’s much deeper than just press releases.

    Here’s what the UMD Marketing VP claims he does:

    “University Marketing and Communications is the mouthpiece and the megaphone for the University of Maryland. We position and promote everything Terp and elevate the university’s reputation through award-winning strategic and creative efforts. Think of us as a one-stop PR shop for Maryland, coming up with great ideas, then putting them into action…”

  3. The article referred to by Kevin Lomagino, Earle Holland, and Andrew Holtz will lead you to the previous ones at relating to chocolate milk and recovery from concussion:

    Let us return to the absurdity of chocolate milk: What sort of prior probability would a researcher have for believing chocolate milk leads to faster recovery from concussion and thus worthy of consideration? The answer from may simply be “The committee declared that the faculty member, Jae Shim, was in violation of university regulations regarding conflict of interest. Multiple times, Shim failed to disclose that Allied Milk Producers, an organization of which Fluid Motion was a member, contributed $200,000 to his lab.”

  4. “Back when I was a student there, we called it UM. I wonder when they changed it to UMD?”

    Might have something to do with those universities in Michigan, Minnesota, and Montana. ;~)

    “There is a problem with press releases that nobody is taking responsibility for.”

    My impression is that this has been going on for a long time.

      • Martha:

        Sure, but those universities in Michigan, Minnesota, and Montana (also some other M-states) also existed way back when the University of Maryland was called UM. I never ever heard it called UMD back then.



        • Hmm — maybe they envied University of Minnesota Duluth?

          (My alma mater — Michigan — was called “U of M”, but apparently so are the University of Minnesota, the University of Manitoba, and the University of Memphis.)

        • I’m an older (40) grad student at “UMD” now, from Texas. I called it UMD, since that’s what everyone at the university called it. I lived in Annapolis area for my first 3 years though, and when I said “UMD”, everyone would emphatically correct me to “Maryland” or “UM”. At least in that social circle, saying “UMD” made you look like an idiot.

  5. Did UM become UMD when the sports teams joined the Big Ten? No problems with Michigan when they were way out there in the Midwest, but once Maryland became part of the Big Ten the need to differentiate itself multiplied noticeably.

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