Putting a positive spin on negative medical research results

As a person who’s worked in the field of public relations for decades, I can usually smell a spin a mile away. Take the classic Torches of Liberty parade in 1929 in which a crowd of women marched through Manhattan smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes. The spin? A Big Tobacco-funded women’s rights event that ‘proved’ women could be liberated enough to smoke in public – as long as they smoked Luckies.

Or the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty ads, featuring plus-size models shilling Dove’s skin creams. The spin? We’re beautiful just the way we are (except, of course, for all that ugly cellulite that Dove products can help us get rid of!)

According to a study presented at the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication in Vancouver, it seems Big Pharma has been equally busy doing its own creative spinning of its research results published in medical journals.

First, fair warning to my fellow members of the Canadian Public Relations Society who cringe at the word ‘spin’ – this posting is going to be overflowing with that four letter word.

For purposes of this study, reported on www.theheart.org, the word spin was defined by the authors as presenting or discussing medical research results in such a way as to convince the reader that an experimental treatment is beneficial, despite research results that don’t say that.

Here’s the story from Vancouver.

Researchers in France decided to assess the amount of positive spin in medical journal articles when study results being reported were actually unfavourable to the drug being studied.

For example, would researchers report negative results as accurately as they did positive ones? Here’s what they found:

  • Overall, evidence of spin was present in 18% of study titles, rising to 29% in the results, 43% in the discussions, and 50% in the conclusions.
  • More than 40% of papers had spin in at least two of the three sections of the main text.
  • 33% of study abstracts contained a “high level” of spin, defined as no acknowledgement of the negative primary outcome, no expression of uncertainty, and no recommendation to study the issue further in another trial.

Dr. Isabelle Boutron of L’Université Paris Descartes, who presented the results of the study, says that sugar-coating negative randomized controlled trials does indeed happen – and far more often than you might believe. She said during her presentation:

“In randomized controlled trials, the data should speak for themselves.

“The problem, however, is that scientists are rarely neutral about the results of their trial. Consciously or unconsciously, they may try to portray their findings in a rosier light, often in the hopes of expediting publication, advancing their own careers, or even profiting financially.”

An initial hurdle, she added, is for journal editors to think more critically about the discussion and conclusion sections of articles.

“Sometimes the trials are very good and they have very straightforward ways of reporting their results and methods, but the interpretation of the results will be wrong. The journal editors need to take a tougher stand.”

Read the entire report here.

See also:

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6 thoughts on “Putting a positive spin on negative medical research results

  1. “….33% of abstracts contained a “high level” of spin, defined as no acknowledgement of the negative primary outcome, no expression of uncertainty, and no recommendation to study the issue further in another trial….”

    This is critically important. Most docs don’t have time to delve into the entire journal article so fast-forward to the abstract’s conclusions, one-third of which have the “spin” that the study’s funders want it to have.

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  2. Very discouraging. “…The problem, however, is that scientists are rarely neutral about the results of their trial…” That is one big problem indeed — especially for doctors who read the biased spin and then alter their prescribing or treatment decisions on patients. But what can be done to curb this bias?

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  3. Pingback: Dr. Bob

  4. Here’s what researchers really mean when they say:

    “It has long been known” . . . [I didn’t look up the original reference.]

    “A definite trend is evident” . . . [These data are practically meaningless.]

    “Of great theoretical and practical importance” . . . [Interesting to me.]

    “While it has not been possible to provide definite answers to these questions” . . . [An unsuccessful experiment but I still have to get it published.]

    “Three of the samples were chosen for detailed study” . . . [The results of the others didn’t make any sense.]

    “Typical results are shown” . . . [The best results are shown.]

    “These results will be shown in a subsequent report” . . . [I might get around to this sometime if I’m pushed.]

    “The most reliable results are those obtained by Jones” . . . [He was my graduate assistant.]

    “It is believed that” . . . [I think]

    “It is generally believed that” . . . [A couple of other guys think so, too.]

    “It is clear that much additional work will be required before a complete understanding occurs” . . . [I don’t understand it.]

    “Correct within an order of magnitude” . . . [Wrong]

    “It is hoped that this study will stimulate further investigations in this field” . . . [This is a lousy paper, but so are all the others on this miserable topic.]

    “Thanks are due to Joe Blotz for assistance with the experiment and to George Frink for valuable assistance” . . . [Blotz did the work and Frink explained to me what it meant.]

    “A careful analysis of obtainable data” . . . [Three pages of notes were obliterated when I knocked over a glass of beer.]

    “It is clear that much additional work will be required before a complete understanding of this phenomenon occurs”… [I don’t understand it.]

    “After additional study by my colleagues”… [ They don’t understand it either.]

    “It is hoped that this study will stimulate further investigation in this field”… [I quit.]

    Source – University of Chicago http://home.uchicago.edu/~jxu/useful%20research.htm [that url is dead now]

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  5. I can’t see a way out of this reality, frankly. There is simply too much industry money to be made by actually publishing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Sad and scary.

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