When abstracts from studies overstate benefits, the effect gets passed along by press releases and news reports, a study found.
Researchers went looking for "spin," which they defined intentional or unintentional reporting from studies that emphasized the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment. They searched for all press releases indexed in the EurekAlert! database between December 2009 and March 2010, finding 70 releases from two-arm, parallel-group randomized controlled trials that were linked both to the original study and to related news items that appeared at the same time.
Results appeared Sept. 11 in PLoS Medicine.
Researchers identified spin in 28 (40%) scientific article abstract conclusions and in 33 (47%) press releases. Mainly, the spin consisted of no mention of nonstatistically significant outcomes (20%); interpreting "P greater than 0.05" as demonstrating equivalence (7%); inappropriate extrapolation (9%); focus on statistically significant results such as subgroup analyses (6%), within-group comparisons (9%) and secondary outcomes (4%); or inadequate claim of safety (6%).
About half of the press releases (33; 47%) had at least one type of spin. The only factor associated with spin in the press release was spin in the article abstract conclusion (relative risk [RR] 5.6; 95% confidence interval [CI], 2.8 to 11.1; P less than 0.001).
News items were identified for 41 trials, for which 21 (51%) were reported with the same spin found in the press release and study abstract conclusion. Findings were overestimated for 10 (24%) news reports.
"Of course, press releases are not meant to be condensed versions of scientific papers; they are meant to summarize the most important findings, contextualize these finding for journalists, and provide contact details for authors and quotes," the researchers wrote. "By being condensed, they always lack details that are contained in the papers. The use of 'spin' or a particular emphasis could be a way to increase the interest of journalists and subsequent citations in the peer-reviewed literature."
This becomes a problem when it changes how readers interpret research findings, they continued. "These findings raise the issue of the quality of the peer review process and highlight the importance of this process for disseminating accurate research results."