Watch out for hype—science 'spin' prevalent, researchers warn

September 11, 2017
'Spin' in biomedical literature is used to distort the interpretation of results or mislead readers so that results are viewed more favourably. Credit: Hilda Bastian, Statistically-Funny.blogspot.com, CC-BY

More than a quarter of biomedical scientific papers may utilise practices that distort the interpretation of results or mislead readers so that results are viewed more favourably, a new study, publishing on September 11 in the open access journal PLOS Biology, suggests.

Researchers Kellia Chiu, Quinn Grundy and Lisa Bero from the University of Sydney Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Pharmacy performed a of 35 published academic studies that had previously analyzed so-called 'spin' in biomedical - also known as 'science hype'.

Their findings suggest that more than 26 percent of papers identified as systematic reviews or meta-analyses contained spin. This figure rose to up to 84 percent in papers reporting on nonrandomised trials.

While spin was variably defined across the 35 studies, a wide variety of strategies to spin results were identified including:

  • Making inappropriate claims about statistically non-significant results
  • Making inappropriate recommendations for that were not supported by study results
  • Attributing causality when that was not possible
  • Selective reporting, such as emphasising only statistically significant or subsets of data in the conclusions
  • Presenting data in a more favourable light than was warranted, for example writing overly optimistic abstracts, misleadingly describing the study design and underreporting adverse events.

Of the 35 studies reviewed, 19 examined whether particular factors (e.g. conflicts of interest, funding) were associated with the presence of spin - however the factors were considered too wide-ranging and unrelated to draw conclusions.

Most of the factors also focused on the characteristics of the individual scientists, journals or studies rather than broader issues in the sector, said co-author Professor Lisa Bero. "The contribution of research incentives and reward structures - for example financial and reputational - that rely on 'positive' conclusions in order to publish and garner media attention is yet to be addressed," she said.

"We see an urgent need for further research to determine the institutional or cultural factors that could contribute to such a high prevalence of spin in scientific literature - and to better understand the potential impact of spin on research, clinical practice and policy."

Researchers, peer reviewers and editors have a responsibility to remain vigilant for spin, said lead author, Kellia Chiu. "The scientific academic community would benefit from the development of tools that help us effectively identify spin and ensure accurate and impartial portrayal and interpretation of results," Chiu said. "Publishing data alongside multiple interpretations of the data from multiple researchers is one way to be transparent about the occurrence of ."

Explore further: 'Spin' in media reports of scientific articles

More information: Chiu K, Grundy Q, Bero L (2017) 'Spin' in published biomedical literature: A methodological systematic review. PLoS Biol 15(9): e2002173. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2002173

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TheGhostofOtto1923
2.8 / 5 (4) Sep 11, 2017
Naw, you mean human beings spin things? I've never heard THAT before.

"The scientific academic community would benefit from the development of tools that help us effectively identify spin and ensure accurate and impartial portrayal and interpretation of results,"

- This would be called AI. No true science until humans are out of the mix.
MR166
3.2 / 5 (6) Sep 11, 2017
Without spin there would be no climate or ecological science papers published. That is where all the funding is.
SamB
3.8 / 5 (5) Sep 11, 2017
The 'Climate Warming' spin is all too prevalent. They initially took me for the spin ride until I did some of my own research. The 'Rapidly rising sea levels' is a good example. I firmly believed that our coastal homes were about to be engulfed by these 10 foot high seas until I found out it was something like 2 cm over the last 40 years! No wonder the Maldives are still not under water. In fact, they are busily expanding their airport.
NIPSZX
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 11, 2017
Nice admission of guilt. This is one of the root causes of all the fake news talk.
Anonym
3 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2017
Funding does not get renewed unless results are produced. So what would you expect when researchers, like everyone else, have families to support and mortgages to pay off? At a minimum, this dynamic will create an unconscious bias that will be confirmed by spinning the experimental outcome. The effect will be strongest in those areas of research heavily reliant on statistical interpretation, like climate science, where a faint signal is sought amidst a lot of noise and a "consensus" supports a confirmatory experimental outcome.
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2017
A serious situation, the unreliability of claims in "scientific" papers, and TheGhostofOtto1923 makes a joke. A common tactic of apologists, trying to minimize the significance of a matter.
This, along with all the other studies about fakery in "scientific" reports invokes, for example, the idea that little, if any, "advice" given can be trusted. More than that. Relying on this untrustworthy material can cause many programs exerting a great deal of influence over many to be initiated. In fact, they likely already have. The fact that no problems were declared associated with programs based on this false material indicates that, in fact, there is a massive process of misrepresentation and outright deceit about "scientific" frauds when big money projects based on them fail.
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2017
A point about climate change. In fact, "climate" as a sequence of weather patterns is changing, but climate as a self reinforcing system is not. If you look for background factors indicating self reinforcing behavior, you likely will fail to find them. The artificial adding of chemicals to the atmosphere is changing weather patterns, but not factors on the ground, in the sea, that would have to constantly reinforce the behavior seen. In fact, it's chemtrails, a deliberate doping of the air with weather modification chemicals, that is causing "climate" change in the sense of altering the normal patterns of weather.
Jitro
1 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2017
Spin in physical literature is even more apparent, it's just lest publicized. The decades of futile (re)search for stringy/susy/quantum gravity models and ignorance of all other findings which could threat this (re)search speaks for itself.
PTTG
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2017
I really wonder about the psychological health of a group of people who spend all day on a website they think is lying to them constantly. Why are you all even here?
bschott
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2017
I really wonder about the psychological health of a group of people who spend all day on a website they think is lying to them constantly. Why are you all even here?

If you are just here to accept everything you are told...why are you here? Surely there is a cult out there after your own heart....

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