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Misinformation in science news: The role of the scholarly community

Kakoli Majumder | Jan 29, 2015 | 28,049 views
Misinformation in science news: The role of the scholarly community

An earlier article discussed how misrepresentation of scientific research in the popular media distorts public understanding of science. Despite the problems that seem to dominate media coverage of scientific information, one question remains: Is the media solely responsible for this exaggeration or distortion of scientific facts?

A recent study found that the scientific community is also responsible to a great extent for exaggerating or distorting science news. This trend has its roots in academic press releases. The authors of this study shortlisted 462 press releases on health research from 20 leading UK universities published over a period of one year and traced 668 associated news stories. They assessed the press releases and the news articles for exaggeration, that is, for claims that were beyond those in the peer reviewed papers.

Some of the findings of the survey are listed below:

  • 40% of the press releases contained more direct or explicit advice than what was present in the journal article 
  • When news stories made claims beyond those in the journal article, such exaggeration was already present in the university press releases.
  • When press releases contained exaggeration, it was likely that the news would also be exaggerated (rates of exaggeration being in the range of 58% - 86%).
  • When press releases did not contain exaggeration, rates of exaggeration in news were very low (10-18%).

Since press releases by academics and their establishments are the dominant link between the academia and the media, information included in them forms the basis of the information in news pieces. The authors concluded that press releases from academic institutions are to a large extent responsible for what is reported by the media. Media outlets and journalists are often blamed for scientific misinformation, but this study shows that the scientific community – authors, universities, and institutions - share the blame too.

Responsible communication of research findings is crucial as a lot is dependent on how science is communicated to the world at large. Using the media to promote research - particularly in the health sciences - encourages investment in newly developed technologies and treatment modes and influences framing of policies concerning healthcare, and hype can adversely affect this. Science communication is a complex and interlinked process, and scientific findings need to be reported accurately at each and every stage of the communication process.

Various factors are responsible for hype in science communication, such as:

  • Journalists are majorly responsible for creating hype, which stems from the pressure they face in an increasingly competitive media world. 
  • Due to the increased competition for public funding, universities are also under pressure to demonstrate the quality of their work.
  • Scientists themselves are under immense pressure to demonstrate the practical and economic impacts of their work. This can lead to a bias toward the communication of newsworthy findings.

These combined factors can contribute to a cumulative spiral of hype.

What can be done to ensure responsible communication of scientific research?

The scholarly community needs to take steps to channelize research communication in a conscientious manner, such as: 

  • Academics should be made accountable for exaggerated claims in their press releases.
  • Science journalists too should avoid uncritical reporting of press releases. A culture of accurate, evidence-based reporting should be encouraged.
  • Policy makers and higher education funding councils should also reconsider the way they correlate the value of research in relation to the impact it makes.

Thoughtful and responsible communication of scientific findings to the public is the need of the hour and this can be achieved if journalists and academics co-operate with each other to work toward the same goal.

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