26 May 2010

Some scientists pure spin doctors

Scientists are no strangers to spinning their research, a new study - presumably not spun - shows.

Scientists are no strangers to spinning their research, a new study - presumably not spun - shows.

More than half of 72 reports examined by French and British researchers had dressed up their conclusions to make it seem as if new treatments were beneficial, even though they weren't according to the statistics in the report.

For instance, one study concluded a cancer detection system worked, but couldn't back it up with actual results, said Dr Isabelle Boutron, who worked on the study.

"Some of it was quite shocking," said Boutron, of the Universite Paris Descartes in France, adding that not all the examples were as glaring.

Earlier research has shown that findings are often spun when money is involved -- for instance when a drug maker funds a study of its own product. In such cases, favourable conclusions may directly contradict the actual results.

How the doctors spin articles

But the spin is often subtle and may even slip by experts reviewing the scientific article. This was true for Vioxx, a pain drug launched and later recalled by Merck, Boutron and her colleagues note.

When a clinical study was published in 2000 comparing Vioxx with an older drug, the authors downplayed the risk of heart attack: Instead of reporting the five-fold increase in risk, they chose to frame it as a protective effect of the older drug.

Although she didn't examine the motives behind the spin, Boutron found several dubious strategies to misrepresent data. Researchers would try to focus on only positive parts of their analysis, or compare patients before and after they received a treatment, without noting how patients responded to placebo. Because the placebo response can be quite powerful, particularly in psychiatry, this can easily distort research findings.

"I'm sure most of the authors weren't cheating, they were just very enthusiastic about their results," Boutron said. But she added that she has become more suspicious when she reads academic articles, and that journals should pay more attention to research spin.

"I supposed it will change the way I review papers," she said. - (Reuters Health, May 2010)


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