Researchers should take more responsibility for exaggeration in press releases

New research indicates exaggeration in academic press releases encourage exaggerated science coverage in the media

According to a new paper in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), exaggerated claims in health-related news stories — including advice that isn’t supported by evidence — may often have their roots in academic press releases and the scientists that sanction them. The paper highlights conflicting interests in the flow of information from research institutions to end users that has the potential to undermine evidence-informed decisions, and even possibly increase risks to health.

To be clear, I work closely with communications and press staff at my own institution and others, and have great respect for what they do. They bring essential expertise to making academic research understandable and accessible to a wider audience. Yet I’ve also been critical in the past of unhelpful exaggeration and speculation in academic press releases. This latest study underlines my concerns with clear evidence of exaggerated reporting rooted in the scientific community.

Exaggeration in health related academic press releases

The study focused on press releases from 20 UK universities, and compared top-level claims in the releases with the papers they were based on, together with media stories that resulted. In their analysis, the study’s authors specifically considered advice to readers that supported behavior change; causal statements drawn from correlational results; and inference to humans from animal research.

In the 462 press releases examined, 40% contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% exaggerated the relevance to humans of animal studies.

The study also found that exaggeration in press releases spilled over to media coverage (see figures below) — 58% of news articles evaluated contained similar exaggerations to those in the associated press releases. In contrast, where press releases didn’t exaggerate the research, only 17% of associated news articles exaggerated the findings. In addition, caveats on the validity and applicability of research in the publications were rarely reflected in press releases.

Interestingly, there was no statistically significant indication that press releases with exaggerated claims received greater pickup in the media.

The authors note that the study was correlational, and so does not demonstrate a causal relation between inflated statements in press releases and inflated news. They do however point to a growing body of research that points to press releases as being the main source of science news.

Bad advice increases health risks

While I suspect that this study highlights practices that are endemic across academic disciplines, it’s particularly concerning for risk-related research. Media-based health advice can and does change how people behave when it comes to their health. And bad advice can lead to compromised health and reduced well-being.

Of course, with any media coverage, there’s a certain degree of responsibility on the reader’s part to not blindly accept what they are told (not to mention the responsibility journalists have to dig beneath the hype). Yet citing peer review research as the source of advice provides a provenance that I suspect many people find it hard to resist. There is certainly a chain of trust between the researcher and reader that depends on responsible representation and reporting at all stages of the communication process. Unfortunately, this study provides evidence that the chain is being compromised at source in some cases.

Promotion versus communication

Part of the problem I suspect is conflicting purposes behind university press releases. It’s often assumed that these are aimed at translating research findings to a non-expert audience — to make them accessible to people who might benefit from the information. While this is undoubtedly a factor, it’s not the only factor — and probably not the most important one — in crafting a press release. Branding, publicity and fund raising are all vitally important to universities — especially in the U.S. And one way to increase all three is to promote transformative, high-value and high-impact research. The more effectively an institution can promote its brand in the public sphere, the easier it is to attract the students, donors and funding that keep the wheels of academia turning.

Researcher responsibility

Promotion and marketing is, in part, what’s expected of communication offices. But this conflict between promotion and communication also trickles down to researchers, where media interest can increase citations and funding, as well as providing a sense of influence and importance. As the paper’s authors note,

“Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers and are not released without the approval of scientists, and thus most of the responsibility for exaggeration must lie with the scientific authors”

This is the bit that really concerns me. There’s a massive temptation to conflate the significance of research (you only need to read the conclusions section of many peer review papers to see this), and to let exaggeration and mis-representation slip into press releases. Yet where misleading information is used by real people to make life-impacting decisions, such slippage can only be seen as irresponsible.

In an accompanying editorial to the BMJ paper, Ben Goldacre suggests that

“all academic press releases should have named authors, including both the press officers involved and the individual named academics from the original academic paper. This would create professional reputational consequences for misrepresenting scientific findings in a press release, which would parallel the risks around misrepresenting science in an academic paper”

This would do a lot to help curb the excesses of “publicity at the expense of accuracy”. Yet even without such overt accountability, it would be good to see a culture of responsibility develop amongst academics and academic institutions that placed the health and well-being of their constituencies before their own aggrandizement.

Paper: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. Petroc Sumner et al. BMJ 2014; 349 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g7015 (Published 10 December 2014)

Editorial: Preventing bad reporting on health research. ben Goldacre. BMJ 2014; 349 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g7465 (Published 10 December 2014)

Press release: Most exaggeration in health news is already present in academic press releases. Eurekalert

Originally published at on December 10, 2014.