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10 January 2013

Breast cancer studies often downplay side effects

Abstracts of breast cancer papers published in top journals may not be providing the most accurate information, according to a new analysis.

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Abstracts of breast cancer papers published in top journals may not be providing the most accurate information, according to a new analysis.

"Investigators want to go overboard to make their studies look positive," said Dr Ian Tannock, the senior author of the new study released online today in Annals of Oncology.

In two-thirds of the 164 studies Dr Tannock and his colleagues scrutinised, that meant not listing serious side effects of treatment in the paper's abstract.

That's important, said Dr Tannock, of Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, because "most of us are so damn busy, we only read the abstract and skim the tables and figures."

In fact, a fifth of studies didn't include toxicities in tables in the results section, and about a third failed to mention them in either the abstract or the discussion section.

Most surprising, said Dr Tannock, was that in a third of studies, if the treatment didn't work as well as one might hope, researchers moved the goalposts, reporting results that weren't what the study was originally designed to test.

Cancer research is not the only area where some researchers are concerned. In November, a group of cardiology journal editors urged authors to watch their language when describing their results. And two paediatric researchers warned of "spin and boasting" in their field's journals.

Pressure on researchers

Researchers "gain more influence with positive studies," said Dr Tannock, whose team analysed reports of phase III trials - the kind used by the US Food and Drug Administration to decide whether to approve drugs.

There are various pressures on researchers to make their results "look better than they really are," Dr Tannock said. However, in the new study, who paid for a study didn't have any relationship with how the results were presented.

Scientists may also spin their results to increase their chances of publishing in the top journals surveyed by the new study. Such marquee publications can improve the chances for tenure, promotion and grants.

One of the journals whose studies Dr Tannock and his colleagues looked at, the New England Journal of Medicine, declined to comment, saying they don't typically comment on other studies. Another, the Journal of Clinical Oncology was not able to respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Journals can help, Dr Tannock said, by insisting that authors include toxicities in abstracts. "Even in 250 words, everybody can get that in there," he said.

Still, he said, oncologists - the intended audience for these papers - "have to be educated to be critical of what they're reading."

(Reuters Health, January 2013)

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