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Tuesday, 29 December 2015


The very wonderful Ben Goldacre rightly has it in for (among others) journalists who misrepresent scientific research to generate a completely artificial scare story.  Think no further than the MMR scandal in journalism for example, in which newspapers killed many children.  (And in which one journalist, Brian Deer, exposed the original fraud.)

Often the problem is not the original paper describing the research, but the press release put out by the authors' institution (whose PR departments are usually staffed by more journalists).  Of course the authors are at fault here - the PR department will always give them a draft of any release to check, and they should be savage in removing anything that they think may cause distortions if reported.  But authors are not disinterested in fame and publicity.

It seems to me that there is a simple solution.  The normal sequence of events is this:

  1. Do experiments,
  2. Write a paper on the results,
  3. Submit it to a journal,
  4. Correct the paper according to criticisms from the journal's reviewers,
  5. See the paper published,
  6. Have the PR people write a press release based on the paper,
  7. Check it,
  8. Send it out, and
  9. See the research - or a distortion of it - appear in the press.

But simply by moving Item 6 to between Items 2 and 3 - that is by having the press release sent out with the paper to the journal's reviewers - a lot of trouble could be avoided.  The reviewers have no interest in getting fame and publicity (unlike the authors and their institution), but they are concerned with accuracy and truth.  If they were to correct the press release along with the paper itself, and in particular were compelled to add a list at the start of the press release on what the paper does and does not say in plain terms, then a lot of trouble could be avoided.

The list would look something like:

  1. This paper shows that rats eating sprogwort reduced their serum LDL (cholesterol) levels by a statistically significant amount.
  2. This paper does not show that sprogwort reduces cardiovascular disease in rats.
  3. This paper does not show that sprogwort reduces cardiovascular disease in humans.
  4. Sprogwort is known to be neurotoxic in large doses; the research in this paper did not study that at all.

Then everyone would quickly discover that the following morning's headline in the Daily Beast that screams


was nonsense.  In particular other journalists would know, and - of course - there's nothing one journalist loves more than being able to show that a second journalist is lying...

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