December 10, 2022

Revolutionary! Life-transforming! Paradigm-shifting! Not!

This will surprise no one, but we all need reminders. Newspaper coverage of biomedical research leans heavily toward reports of initial findings, which are frequently attenuated or refuted by later studies, according to a report in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

After the Great Stem Cell Debate, this will surprise no one, but headlines are meant to sell newspapers, not to tell the truth. (See cover story to the right.) Coverage of biomedical research leans heavily toward reports of initial findings, which are frequently attenuated or refuted by later studies, according to a report in the open access journal PLOS ONE. This leads to disproportionate media coverage of early results. The headline for the journal article says it all: “Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False”.

The researchers, led by Francois Gonon of the University of Bordeaux, used ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) as a test case. They identified 47 scientific research papers published during the 1990s on the topic that were covered by 347 newspaper articles. Of the top 10 articles covered by the media, they found that 7 were initial studies.

All 7 were either refuted or strongly attenuated by later research, but these later studies received much less media attention than the earlier papers. The authors write that, if this phenomenon is generalizable to other health topics, it likely causes a great deal of distortion in health science communication. The authors suggest that press releases for initial studies should include a warning that the research must be confirmed by subsequent independent investigations. ~ PLoS One, Sept 12

Michael Cook
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