As anyone who closely follows the popular press's coverage of science knows, the latest cure, treatment, or supplement is often touted as being more important or revolutionary than it actually is. But the blame lies not so much with the media outlets reporting the stories, or the press offices that issue releases to catch journalists' eyes, but with the researchers themselves, according to a study that appears in the latest issue of PLoS Medicine.
A team of French researchers combed 498 press releases announcing the results of scientific trials on treatments for cancers, diabetes, fibromyalgia, diarrhea, and a slew of other maladies from December 2009 to March 2010 in the EurekAlert! database. They then identified 70 that pertained to 2-arm, parallel-group randomized control trials (RCTs), and found the corresponding studies as published in the primary literature and all the related news stories written about the research. Forty percent of the abstracts in scientific papers and 47 percent of the press releases contained some kind of "spin," which they defined as "specific reporting strategies (intentional or unintentional) emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment." The main source of this spin, they concluded, was the scientific papers themselves. News reports that contained spin, they added, were mainly parroting the same hype found in the original studies.
But the authors of the PLoS Medicine study go further than just identifying a general trend towards overemphasis in the biomedical literature; they name names. Specifically, they single out Eleanor Walker, director of breast services at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, as an example of findings being spun by a researcher resulting in similarly spun media coverage. Walker’s work comparing acupuncture to a conventional drug for treating hot flashes in breast cancer patients on hormone therapy claimed that acupuncture "appears to be equivalent" to the drug in treating the patients. The paper also claimed that patients receiving acupuncture reported boosts in energy, sex drive, clarity of thought, and well-being. The story was picked up by several media outlets.
The PLoS Medicine authors faulted Walker and her team for spinning the results of her study, claiming she focused on within-treatment-group comparison to arrive at a conclusion of equivalence when the between-group comparison was not statistically significant. The authors added that the findings on sex drive and increased energy were not prespecified outcomes, were not reported in the results section of the paper, and therefore should not have been a main focus of the findings.
But Walker defends her actions. "It wasn’t a spin," she told The Chronicle of Higher Education—"everything that was mentioned is in fact in the paper and supported with data." She added that the PLoS Medicine authors’ conclusions were mistaken and that both treatment groups exhibited a "significant" declines in hot flashes. "Why my study should be picked out for this—maybe because it got 1.7 million media hits," Walker said.