Mind the spin

By Grant Jacobs 04/11/2009

It’s bad enough when journalists–intentionally or not–spin a scientific result, it’s really not good when a commercial interest does and it makes me cringe when the scientists’ own statements or the university’s press release does.

The latest issue of Nature has a editorial on minding the spin. A sponsor of an HIV vaccine clinic trial in Thailand spoke out before the research findings were available, never mind before other researchers could comment on the results, “of course” emphasising the positive findings…

Journalists should be aware that if anyone–sponsor, researcher, PR representative, anyone–speaks out before a research paper is released, even if that paper has been accepted for publication (i.e. “in press”), they’re speaking out of turn.

Why can’t journalists choose to report “clinical trial sponsor tries to speak before scientists’ findings are released”?

A key problem is no other researchers will have had an opportunity to consider the claims made (excepting peer-reviewers of the paper, whose comments aren’t usually published).

Media are wont to publish immediately, but science works on a longer time scale with the scientific community at large examining, criticising and testing claims made in research publications. Pre-release spin can work to pre-empt any criticism. Fortunately publication by press conference, as in the case referred to in the Nature editorial, is rare.

Spin can also be an issue for more modest papers published through a correct timeline.

There’s a euphoria of finally getting a paper out. Been there, done that. Fair enough too, months or years of work lead up to papers being published.

Publicity can help attract research funds and can be rather flattering, if it’s in your favour. A part of intellectual honesty ought to be attempting to place the work in it’s larger context in an even-handed way.

In a related way, in the past I’ve seen some journalists lift content from the closing section of a paper and write about it as if this is what the work will do.

Well, no, not usually.

The closing words or discussion section is the accepted place for forward-looking, speculative statements. What the work might eventually show, after more research, not what it will.

They’re often closer to “plain English” than the rest of the paper, which I suspect is one reason they’re latched onto by some journalists. They also tend to look at larger (and grander) issues, which are probably appealing but not there yet.

Scientists are usually pretty good about indicating that these statements are speculative. Perhaps these journalists are confusing this with the cautiousness with which scientific claims are made? Tentativeness about speculation is a different thing to caution over accuracy. (Scientific claims tend to be expressed in terms of likelihood and tempered by any assumptions or unknowns.)

These statements can also be the researchers trying to stake out their territory, indicating to others their general intended research direction. Oh yes, science can–for some–be a territorial battle. After all the livelihoods of the lab might rest on their being the leaders in their field. That’s not to say these statements stop every man (woman) and their dogs laboratory organisms running after the latest trend.

I feel I’m guilty of stating the very obvious, but then these things still seem to happen.

Also, I have to admit to thinking that–again–the best-placed people to avoid these traps in presenting the work to the public are those with some knowledge of the research area, i.e. scientists writing for the media as I’ve previously discussed several times.

So, mind the spin.

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