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Editorial: Research Review 2015

Professor Brett Delahunt, Editor

We often read in the newspaper of outstanding discoveries in health sciences, which have the potential to revolutionise the diagnosis or the treatment of specific diseases.  Despite this hyperbole it is surprising how few of these discoveries are converted into real improvements in medical practice.

Press releases by academic institutions have become the norm although relatively few make it into the popular media.  What is disturbing is that much of this material trumpets minor, unproven or hoped for results and as such published studies, with meaningful results, are sometimes swamped in a sea of triviality.  Somewhat surprisingly there is a significant body of literature in mainstream medical journals that investigates the impact of the press in the dissemination of medical information. 

Press releases relating to specific projects most commonly arise from one of two sources – the staff of the research publication itself, or the employing academic institution of the researchers. 

Most reputable medical journals will issue press releases relating to important studies.  In reality; however, journals are usually sparing in the release of statements, with the final decision being the responsibility of the Editor.  Interestingly, advice regarding the appropriateness of a press release relating to the publication of a specific study is usually provided by the independent referees who have assessed the scientific validity of the work.

In 2012 a group from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in the USA investigated the role of press releases in shaping subsequent newspaper coverage of published research works (British Medical Journal 344;dS164:2012).  In this study it was shown that the content of the press release had a major impact on the content of the subsequent newspaper article.  In particular potential downsides of a study were overlooked if they were not mentioned in the press release, even if they were discussed in the original article.  It was found that 68% of newspaper articles mentioned potential harms when they were referred to in the press release and that this declined to 24% for press preleases that did not specifically mention them.  Similarly, only 16% of articles mentioned limitations of the study when these were not mentioned in the press release.  This means that the news reports often relied heavily on the content of the press release rather than the content of the original published study.

Academic institutions are a rich source of press releases which are often issued both for internal and external consumption.  A recent study from Cardiff University investigated the relationship between exaggerated health news reports and the content of academic press releases (British Medical Journal 349;g7015:2014).  In this study the authors investigated the association between advice reported by a study and that contained within the associated press release.  They also looked at the strength of reported causal associations which they classified in the original research report as ambiguous, conditional, possible, or unconditional.   In both instances it was found that, in those studies where the press release provided exaggerated claims, there was a much greater incidence of exaggerated claims appearing in the subsequent newspaper report.  A similar association was also noted in experimental studies involving animals, where press releases often failed to note that the results may not be applicable to humans.  What, perhaps, was the most astounding was that the study was based upon data relating to published investigations and press releases issued by the Russell Group of Universities, being the 20 leading research universities in the United Kingdom.  In their conclusions the authors were careful not to lay the blame on journalists and publicity officers solely, but also implicated the scientists, who it was assumed would have approved the content of the press release.  It was agreed that the overall responsibility should lie with the universities who often feel obliged to promote the results of research activities in order to secure competitive funding.

Regardless of who is responsible, a press release and consequent newspaper article which contains exaggerated claims is at best undesirable and at worst unethical.  Most patients no longer rely solely on medical practitioners as the source of health-related information, and the internet, as well as the popular media, is a powerful source of both information and misinformation.  Statements from distinguished institutions relating to research by reputable scientists, by their very nature, are often given increased weight.  Humans are very vulnerable when faced with serious disease and many will embrace unproven treatments out of desperation.  In this regard exaggerated claims relating to the value of research results can be potentially damaging. 

This has important medicolegal implications for both academic institutions and individual researchers.  The policing of research (mis)conduct is a rather grey area.  While the Medical Council and the Health and Disability Commissioner may claim jurisdiction in cases related to their sphere of influence, neither bodies have a specific research focus.  The situation is also complicated by the fact that much health-related research is undertaken by those with non-medical qualifications and no clinical background.  In a number of countries Offices of Resarch Integrity oversee the activities of researchers and clearly this has value in an increasingly competitive research environment.  Many researchers would welcome such oversight, as this would not only provide protection for the public, but would also support the activities of those who are genuine performers, rather than those who simply shout the loudest.

Professor Brett Delahunt, Editor


Research Advisory Committee Membership

Professor Brett Delahunt (Chair)

Dr David Ackerley

Dr Peter Bethwaite

Associate Professor Duncan C Galletly

Dr Rebecca Grainger

Associate Professor Anne La Flamme

Professor Graham Le Gros

Professor John H Miller

Dr Deborah Williamson

Editorial- Research Review 2015

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