Medical Research Studies and “Spin”

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Jean Chen University of Toronto want to believe that the research studies published in reputable scientific and medical journals has been thoroughly reviewed before publication. As with all human endeavors, there are flaws in research methods and research hypotheses. Errors in the actual conducting of research and incorrect conclusions that can be drawn from the research data. This could lead to research scientists and clinicians being misled. These inherent weaknesses in research are why standardized checks and balances should be used in all research studies. This is to minimize the chance of bias and error in research and the analysis of data they generate.

Even with all the precautions taken when conducting research, especially research studies that involve human subjects, biases and errors cannot be eliminated completely. This reality must be accepted. Medical journal editors and medical ethicists have been increasingly concerned about the possibility of incorrect conclusions in health-related research. Many clinical research studies yield important new insights that help us understand the diagnosis and treatment for human diseases. However, there are many studies that produce non-significant findings that don’t really improve our understanding. It is not surprising that researchers are sometimes pressured to publish statistically significant and clinically meaningful research findings. While it is well-known that researchers can interpret research results too optimistically is a common phenomenon. However, this has not been proven to be widespread. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows how this disturbing trend can affect the published results of clinical research studies.

This study of “researcher spinning” examined 72 prospective randomized clinical trials. They used 616 peer-reviewed research papers that were published in December 2006. The 72 studies selected were rejected because the treatment results did not meet scientifically accepted standards of statistical significance. This is typically defined as less than 5 percent chance that the outcome was due to chance.

These results are alarming, to put it mildly.

18% of the cases had “negative” authors who chose titles that implied statistically or clinically significant results despite not having any primary research findings.

38 percent of authors in the abstract (a summary of the entire study) exaggerated their results or minimized them so that it implied that they were significant. Amazingly, 58 percent of the authors “spoke” their abstracts in order to suggest clinically relevant outcomes that were not supported with their published research data.

Additional “spin” was found in the main body of these 72 research paper, 29 percent of the Results sections and 43 percent of Discussion sections. And 50 percent of Conclusions sections.

More than 40% of these 72 research papers involved “spin” at least two sections in the main body.

This study’s findings that research authors routinely exaggerate or embellish their research results is not surprising to me as a former researcher in cancer research. This study reveals a shocking amount of “spin” by research scientists. It is alarming to learn that, despite all the safeguards in place over the past 30-40 years to encourage objective and honest research.

These disappointing results also confirm the main purpose of the global health research updates column: To objectively and critically present cutting-edge clinical and laboratory health–research findings to my hundreds of thousands of regular readers across the globe. Although this type of health journalism is not as glamorous or as sensual as the work of non-scientist columnists in mainstream media, it’s still more honest and informative than traditional media companies that seek to attract new readers through their exaggerated reporting and breathless (but superficial!) reporting.

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