My BMJ editorial: how can we stop academic press releases misleading the public?

December 10th, 2014 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 9 Comments »

Screenshot 2014-12-10 14.47.53There is an excellent research paper published today in the BMJ, showing that academic press releases routinely exaggerate scientific findings and mislead the public.

This is something I’ve often covered. In this story, for example, the BMJ’s own press release about their own paper was hopelessly and entirely misleading. And after this story, featuring a misleading press release from Great Ormond Street Hospital, the head of that institution wrote a paranoid and misguided defense (which I have proudly reprinted, in my new book, in full).

Anyway, I wrote an editorial in the BMJ to accompany this new research paper, and I make a series of recommendations about how we can stop academics and their institutions misleading the public. These ideas revolve largely around transparency and shame. The research paper is free to access, my editorial is paywalled for now, but this link will let you read it for free:

As a related note, I’m sad to see journalists like Steve Connor apparently accepting this paper as an excuse for bad science reporting. I’m with Ed Yong, in this excellent comment: readers don’t expect journalists to be secretaries. Readers expect journalists to add value by critically appraising the evidence for claims.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

9 Responses

  1. Eli Rabett said,

    December 10, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Eli’s simple suggestion is that all press releases must be attached PIs and co-Is next grant proposal.

  2. Alasdair Clarke said,

    December 10, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    Surely this is a direct product of the focus on “Impact” that’s so important when applying for RCUK grants? I’m only a post doc, but my experience with the system is that there’s incentives to exaggerate the impact of your research when you’re applying for the grant money, and when you publish the work. It’s a perverse system that helps nobody.

  3. James Hyde said,

    December 10, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Very good article: As the song goes, “Don’t believe the Hype”. Are there any corresponding studies measuring the emotional pleasure responses of [a] Scientists, [b] Research PR staff, and [c] Research Organisation CEOs to seeing their own names/organisation names/research papers widely quoted in the media? And the dopamine levels that develop due to regular quotation? I suspect the correlation would be quite high.

  4. marc said,

    December 11, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Ben, in case you missed it, the Mail is at it AGAIN!

  5. Mike B said,

    December 21, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Interesting idea, I agree press releases should have authorship stated. I have been asking for that for advertisments, for a long time… make the PR companies take public responsibility for what they say.

    Making scientists responsible for content of press releases, though, seems a little unfair. The industrial reality is scientists have little influence over the PR dept these days. It is like asking the guy on the abattoir production line, to take personal responsibility, for the quality of the mince. The guy has no realistic say in the standards the company works to. No realistic way to influence them. If he dissents or refuses to work – it’s more likely he’d lose his job, than the company would improve its practise. And then he’s unemployed and out of the game anyway.

    The same attitudes and power imbalances apply in academia and research, too. A lot of senior people worked very hard indeed, over the last 30 years, to bring this about. Nowadays, accuracy is merely one means of achieving their aims, and not necessarily the best means either. They are not letting go of their power any time soon.

  6. Mike B said,

    December 21, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    To expand on the previous comment – I have little to do with university PR dept, except on one memorable occasion.

    That occasion concerned memoirs from a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, Ismael Beah, published as a book “A long way gone”.

    At the time, as far as Australia was concerned, Sierra Leone was a small third world country half a planet away, no one had heard of, and the book was hard to get.

    So it was surprising when the national broadsheet newspaper spent a week headlining Beah as a fraud – and even went to the trouble of sending a special invetigating team to dig dirt.

    I happened to have read Beah’s book, and let’s just say, the newspaper’s reporting was very one sided, and unbalanced (we later learned, this is not uncommon, from that paper). I therefore took the paper to task, in the interests of accuracy, and balanced reporting. I fairly quickly received threatening emails from its senior reporter.

    Sought help of the uni PR office. You would think that getting the truth out, or showing there was more than one way to read a book – would be important. But the PR office said – drop it. The newspaper and its reporter have big reputations and are very influential. The Uni needs to keep on good terms with them.

    So I dropped it.

    The press office was presumably doing as University management instructed. In terms of the press office’s field of responsibility, their strategy was sound. But for a scientist/academic, it was a shock. A shock, that uni management do not value truthfulness and accuracy above all else, as we do. They see other things, as more important. Truthfulness is optional. It can be dispensed with, should need arise.

  7. Kit Byatt said,

    December 26, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Great editorial, thanks for bringing this to light!

    Enjoying your latest book ITYFIABMCTT (which I received for Christmas, and am currently enjoying working through).

    For what it’s worth, Bad Pharma and your Evidence 2013 presentation were part of the inspiration for me to get down to writing a long-considered critique of over-treatment of stroke risk factors in older people[1] resulting from ‘flattering’ interpretation of trial results by their authors and subsequent commentators (incidentally, this paper is ranked #1 in Altmetric scores for papers in EBM).

    My paper contains more examples of the sorts of poor academic standards that you encompass in your book: using post hoc data ± selectively, biased sampling & publishing, and reporting relative rather than absolute benefits – never mind patients’ views of qualitative importance of outcomes, which were never addressed in any of the papers (apart from dismissing their ‘subjective’ experience of side effects).

    Keep up the great work – I have ensured our PGMC library has your previous books and I will be recommending the latest one, too!

    Best wishes

    Kit Byatt

    Ref: Overenthusiastic stroke risk factor modification
    in the over-80s: Are we being disingenuous to ourselves,
    and to our oldest patients?
    Byatt, K.
    Evid Based Med 2014;19:121-122 doi:10.1136/eb-2013-101646

  8. Lynn (Bettiblue) said,

    January 27, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    Hi Ben,
    I agree and thank you for the work that you do. On the subject of reporting and misinformation. I keep seeing reports about, the increase in the number of people suffering from Alzhiemers disease, some are even referring to the Alzhiemers ‘epidemic’ (along with the obesity epidemic), giving it a ridiculous contagion quality. There must be a special pill we can take to avoid it therefore, better still a vaccine! Hah! anyway, where was I? Obviously it is too late for me and I am well on my way to, Gagga Rest Home for the Bewildered. Before I set off though, in the mobility scooter which they will no doubt prescribe, having confiscated my shoes and car keys, I would just like to offer some thoughts. Could it be that, this so called ‘epidemic’, is being created by the cocktails of medications, which seem to be routinely prescribed for people over 50, the side effects of which include; confusion, memory loss, dizziness, etc, etc? Just some thoughts, which may well be my last. Happy new year by the way and thanks again.
    Lynn (Bettiblue)

  9. David Pannett said,

    February 3, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Hi Ben, Just finished reading “I think you’ll find ” etc. Brilliant, just like “Bad Science” and “Bad Pharma”. Can’t wait for your book on Education. Hope you debunk all the bullshit which I heard and had to put up with in my 37 years in education, 22yrs of which was as a Headteacher. If you want a few examples just email.
    Cheers Dave , an education sceptic.