By Peter Griffin 18/08/2017

Thousands of scientific journal papers are being published every week and their authors and institutions are often under intense pressure to generate interest in the research beyond the world of peer review.

Research leader Professor Sally Dunwoodie from the Victor Chang Institute with her team. Credit: Victor Chang Institute

That can be a healthy thing – it is increasingly acknowledged that the impact scientists have goes well beyond their contribution to the scientific literature to include public engagement. It means that researchers and their institutions need to improve their game when it comes to communicating their science, if they want to be featured in the top media outlets.

The unhealthy aspect of that is the trend towards hype and sensationalism in press releases issued by research institutions. Press officers are competing with click bait and feeling pressure from their institutions to gain more “share of voice” in the media. They know that under-resourced newsrooms and general reporters without much science reporting experience are likely to lean heavily on the press release in reporting new findings.

All of this means that when we read hyped-up stories about  a “scientific breakthrough” and “medical cure”, the hype is as likely to come from the scientific community as it is from overzealous reporters.

A 2014 BMJ paper found exactly that. As Nature summarised:

The study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), examined 462 press releases produced by the leading 20 UK research institutions in 2011. Overall, 40% of those releases contained health advice that was more explicit than anything found in the actual article. One-third emphasized possible cause and effects when the paper merely reported correlations. And 36% of releases about studies of cells or animals over-inflated the relevance to humans.

So hype is a real problem, particularly in medical research releases.

Last week saw one of the worst examples in recent years of hype in a scientific press release in this part of the world. Writing for Cosmos, my colleague at the Australian Science Media Centre,  Robin Bisson, sums up the debacle nicely.

It involved a press release issued by the New South Wales-based Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, which claimed “one of the greatest discoveries in pregnancy research”, “a blockbuster, world first breakthrough”, “astounding” and a “remarkably simple cure” to prevent miscarriages and multiple types of birth defects.

Wow, big claims indeed, especially given that the research involved pregnant mice rather than pregnant women, an important fact that was glossed over in the press release.

The findings are certainly significant – the researchers discovered that pregnant mice with a rare genetic variant have trouble producing a very important molecule Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD). The result is increased rates of birth defects. But giving the mice vitamin B3 resulted in healthy pups.

As Bisson explains:

The discovery of a new cause of birth defects is undoubtedly a big deal. But huge questions remain, not least how many cases of birth defects in humans are down to a lack of NAD. As Professor Claire Roberts, an expert in pregnancy complications at the University of Adelaide, told me, “we don’t know if NAD deficiency is common, nor do we know if it is associated with miscarriage in women; at this stage it is a hypothesis”.

You’d expect the researchers to express caution until they’ve undertaken more research about NAD deficiency in humans and controlled trials to ascertain the applicability of the treatment to pregnant women. But no – already we have a “cure”.

From the press release, which is still on the Victor Chang website:

This historic discovery, which is believed to be among Australia’s greatest ever medical breakthroughs, is expected to forever change the way pregnant women are cared for around the globe.

The response was predictable – the headlines were largely uncritical, trumpeting the potential cure. Always looking for quirk factor, reporters realised (or were told by the researchers) that vitamin B3 is found in vegemite.

Cue lots of headlines like this:

The AusSMC issued this moderating, independent commentary on the research which helped, to some extent, temper the claims of the researchers.

The hype was also worrying enough for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to issue a statement raising their concerns:

These outcomes have yet to be demonstrated in humans and there is no data to support dietary supplementation with niacin to prevent recurrent miscarriage or fetal abnormality. Until randomised controlled studies are done, it is premature to claim a medical breakthrough. Women should be advised to use a multivitamin supplement in the peri-conception period however excessive consumption of vitamin B3 may be harmful to both the woman and the baby.

Victor Chang stood by its claims while at the same time issuing a statement that totally exposed the hype of its original release. It told SBS:

“The Victor Chang Institute would never suggest this discovery will explain all causes of miscarriage and birth defects.

“It is not known how many cases of miscarriage and birth defects are caused by low levels of NAD. It is also not yet known what dose of vitamin B3 will prevent miscarriage and birth defects.”

But Victor Chang can’t have it both ways and should be embarrassed at the way they presented their research to the media. This was over-hyped pure and simple and this sort of thing erodes confidence in science in general.

As Bisson concludes:

Last week’s headlines show that it is all too easy for a hyped-up press release to catapult dramatic scientific claims to the top of the news agenda without being properly interrogated. On this occasion there will probably be few consequences. But journalists need to be prepared for the next Andrew Wakefield who comes along if they don’t want to end up becoming accessories to something as damaging as the MMR scandal.

As New Zealand suffers multiple screening of the anti-vaccine propaganda film Vaxxed, those words ring particularly true.

10 tips to avoid propagating hype in your medical press release

1: Avoid making claims like “cure”, “revolutionary breakthrough” and “world first” unless you really do have the evidence to back them up.

2: Make it clear what types of trials the research involved, whether they were conducted with humans or animals, any limitations of the research, and give an accurate summary of its potential application as a medical treatment and the steps ahead required to get to that point.

3: Test the release on lay people – what impression are they left with about the significance of the research? Is an accurate reflection of what the research actually found?

4: Imagine the press release claims as front page newspaper headlines – would you really be confident seeing them in that context? If not, dial them back, because otherwise that is where they will end up – on the front page.

5: Researchers – resist being strong-armed by overzealous comms staff who are desperate to add to their media clippings file and justify their existence. Your reputation is on the line, don’t blow it in an explosion of hype.

6: Comms people – resist submitting to overbearing researchers who have an over-inflated view of the importance of their new discovery. Your job is to save them from themselves – and  protect your institution’s reputation.

7: Make sure everyone involved in developing the release signs off on it – take collective responsibility for it. Don’t send it out unless everyone is happy to stand behind the claims made in it. This will take time – build that time into the release plan.

8: Make sure the researchers are well briefed on the key messages and know how to accurately portray the importance of the research and its future potential when the media calls.

9: Use a bullet point list at the bottom of the release list to summarise the key details of the research eg: type of study, sample size, strengths and limitations,  so journalists can easily find them.

10: If you realise in hindsight that the press release didn’t quite represent the science accurately, let the media know ASAP with an updated press-release and retraction of the previous version. Get proactive to save the integrity of the researchers and public perception, rather than trying to save face.

0 Responses to “Forget fake news – the bigger problem in science is PR hype!”

  • Thank you – very interesting article. Also, I was very keen to read your tips – I agree with a lot of the information presented in them (and a lot seem indeed to make good sense) but I can’t personally see points 7 and 9 to be realistic. I have never had the chance to see anything even remotely close to the actual news article or story prior to publication. In fact, most journalists that I talk to do not even have their actual thread clear in their heads before talking to me, they often seem to just have a starting point/question and because they are asking about my field more generally (rather than a specific paper or research project of mine), we seem to just “chat”. I am often told that the deadlines they are working under are so quick that they can’t possibly show me their stories prior to publication.

    • You portray actual reporting I think, whereas points 7 & 9 concern the preparation of the press release — one of the inputs into the reporting process.
      I like the systemic view taken in this article, epitomized by points 5&6.

  • @Andrea @claire To be clear – this list of tips is aimed at researchers and their communications teams, NOT journalists. We have a whole 28 booklet of tips for journalists – The SMC Desk Guide for Covering Science.

    @Andrea I am not talking about you seeing the actual news article before it is published – no researcher should expect that, though journalists will often check quotes for factual accuracy. I am talking about the press release – researchers and the comms team need to both sign off on the press release – and own the consequences collectively. I see too much of researchers not being engaged in the press release process then blaming the comms team and vice versa, comms teams complaining that the researchers said they were okay with it and then blaming the comms team on inaccurate coverage. This needs to change.

    @claire all ten points refer to development and publication of the press release, not the news story by journalistic outlets. If the research institution’s team is not thinking about all of these things when developing and sending out the press release – and in the aftermath of its release, they could get themselves in trouble.

  • It was not that long ago that press agentry was the predominant practice of public relations firms. Thankfully, Stephen Colbert schooled everyone about ‘truthiness’ and the public relations profession is shaking off the last vestiges of puffery. Still, researchers will want to choose their communications partners just as carefully as they choose their co-authors. Pick a PR professional who is experienced, educated and a member of a professional society with a code of ethics.

  • Science press releases are done through the press offices of the university or institution.

    Using an outside firm isn’t going to make press releases “truthier”; scientists and their press officers working together might, as Peter suggested.

    (For what it’s worth, at times I think one hallmark of some pseudo-scientists, woo-meisters, etc., is using ‘independent’ PR people to rark up their stuff. If a trend, it’s an unfortunate one.)