Press releases found to exaggerate research findings

Investigators are cautioned to avoid overstating outcomes, and academic medical centers are urged to refrain from issuing releases on early findings.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted June 12, 2009

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A new study shows there's plenty of blame to go around when a less-than-earth-shattering research finding gets headlined as the next miracle cure.

Although fingers most frequently point to the media, a study in the May 5 Annals of Internal Medicine found that exaggerated claims for medical research often begin with the press releases prepared by academic medical centers. (link)

The study examined 200 releases from 20 medical centers and found that 58 releases exaggerated a finding's importance, some explicitly claiming relevance to human health although the research was done on animals. About one-quarter of quotes from researchers overstated the importance of the findings, the study's authors said.

"We were interested in academic medical centers because they set the standard for research and education in the U.S.," said co-lead author Lisa Schwartz, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute of Health Policy and Clinical Practice in Lebanon, N.H., and co-director of the Veterans Affairs Outcomes Group at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, N.H.

Dr. Schwartz teaches journalists at conferences nationwide how to accurately assess the quality of the research they report on. "While we are teaching the journalists how to be more skeptical, they tell us about the exaggerated sources they see."

To help resolve the issue, Dr. Schwartz urged investigators to be "responsible in their quotes and try to avoid overstating the implications of their research." Investigators also should review press releases to ensure they set the right tone.

In addition, medical centers should issue fewer releases about preliminary findings, since conclusions may change over time, Dr. Schwartz said. There also should be fewer releases about animal or laboratory research.

Joann Rodgers, director of media relations and public affairs for Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, found some of the study's conclusions "disconcerting." She said it's important that press releases be issued on basic and translational research because they demonstrate the "process of science."

She criticized the study for undervaluing the intelligence of the public. "People who read these stories or see them on TV, and certainly the journalists who report on them, understand that when a press release says a finding in mice might have some application for humans in the future, it's not going to be tomorrow."

But she said the study has value because "it gets a dialogue going about good practices in writing press releases."

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