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Tuesday, 4 June, 2002, 23:26 GMT 00:26 UK
Research claims 'exaggerated'
Lab
Lab work is painstaking and complex
Medical journals have been accused of hyping up the findings of the research that they publish.

Journalists too have been criticised for writing stories based on preliminary findings that often do not stand up to further scrutiny.


Journals can and should do more to enhance the quality of medical reporting

Dartmouth Medical School
Researchers from the Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire, US, examined the quality of information put out by leading medical journals, and news copy produced by journalists covering scientific meetings.

They found that press releases put out by some medical journals may exaggerate the perceived importance of findings, and do not always highlight the limitations of the research.

The researchers examined the medical press release process at several high-profile medical journals.

They found that while medical journals strive to ensure accuracy and the acknowledgment of limitations in articles, press releases may not reflect these efforts.

The study focused on 127 press releases produced by nine highly respected journals. These were:

  • Annals of Internal Medicine
  • British Medical Journal (BMJ)
  • Circulation
  • Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
  • Journal of the US National Cancer Institute (JNCI)
  • The Lancet
  • Pediatrics
The researchers found that many of the releases did not give full statistical information with which to put the findings of the study into full context.

Just 23% of the releases noted study limitations.

And industry funding was acknowledged in only 22% of the studies that had received it.

Balance problems

Writing in JAMA, lead researchers Dr Steven Woloshin and Dr Lisa Schwartz said: "A number of authors have criticized the accuracy and balance of the news media in reporting on medical science.

"As a direct means of communication between medical journals and the media, press releases provide an opportunity for journals to influence how the research is translated into news.

"Our findings suggest journals could make more of this opportunity."

The researchers called on editors to adopt a more rigorous approach towards the way information is presented in press releases.

They said: "The public and many physicians often learn about new medical research through the news media, rather than medical journals.

"We think that journals can and should do more to enhance the quality of medical reporting."

Reporters criticised


Patients may experience undue hope or anxiety or may seek unproved, useless, or even dangerous tests and treatments

Dartmouth Medical School
The same researchers have also criticised the medical press for its reporting of stories from scientific meetings.

They say that in many cases journalists report on research which is still at an early stage, but present it as though firm conclusions have been drawn.

The researchers analysed 252 news stories written about a total of 147 research presentations from five high profile scientific conferences which took place in 1998.

They found that 25% of the studies were never subsequently published in a scientific journal.

They said: "Scientific meetings are intended to provide a forum for researchers to present new work to colleagues.

"Frequently, the presentations represent work in progress. Unfortunately, many projects fail to live up to their early promise; in some cases, fatal flaws emerge.

"Press coverage at this early stage may leave the public with the false impression that the data are in fact mature, the methods valid, and the findings widely accepted.

"As a consequence, patients may experience undue hope or anxiety or may seek unproved, useless, or even dangerous tests and treatments."

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