Researchers often like to complain that science journalists puff up their results to sell newspapers. And there’s no question that reporters make missteps. But a commentary published today in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine brings to mind the old saying about those who live in glass houses not casting the first stones.
Some authors exaggerate the importance of their research and unfairly denigrate other studies. This occurs only in a minority of articles we review but is frequent enough that we have collected examples and grouped them into categories.
Hackneyed phrases do not make the writer appear thoughtful, are boring for the reader, and take up space. Consider whether the reader needs to once again hear that obesity is common, diabetes is increasing, and that the cost of medical care is a problem. We think not.
Then there are the boasts:
Boasts of being first are common. Some are inadvertently amusing because they have so many qualifiers, like bragging about being the oldest left-handed person to walk backward up the Washington Monument.
All of this leads the authors to urge:
Writing for scientific journals should be as clean and concise as possible. Leave spin and boasting to others.
Those “others,” you might not be surprised to learn, are press officers and journalists. In a recent study published in PLoS Medicine, a group of French researchers examined press releases and news stories about 70 randomized controlled clinical trials. They found “spin” — defined as “specific reporting strategies (intentional or unintentional) emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment” — in “about half of press releases and media coverage.”
But researchers shouldn’t be pointing fingers, it turns out. The authors of the PLoS Medicine study conclude:
In multivariable analysis, the main factor associated with “spin” in press releases was the presence of “spin” in the article abstract conclusion.
Cummings and Rivara don’t just point out such problems. They have a role model, published last year in JAMA, “Effect of Screening on Ovarian Cancer MortalityThe Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Randomized Controlled Trial.” And they’re hardly boasting about their own work:
We confess to committing some of these literary sins ourselves; improving writing is a lifelong process.