Brussels, 05 June 2002
Coverage of scientific meetings may distort research results by presenting 'too much, too soon,' say two US doctors.
Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Dr Steven Woloshin and Dr Lisa Schwartz of the Dartmouth Medical School and the Veterans Affairs Outcomes Group say preliminary research results are often presented in the media as established facts although they may not have been validated or evaluated by the scientific community.
Dr Woloshin and Dr Schwartz trawled databases to find press coverage of five high-profile medical meetings in 1998. Some per cent of the research presentations received front-page coverage in at least one newspaper. Of the total number of research presentations covered by the media, 24 per cent were randomised trials, 21 per cent were small projects involving less than 30 human subjects and 16 per cent were animal or laboratory studies which did not involve patients.
The authors said: 'Scientific meetings are intended to provide a forum for researchers to present new work to colleagues; the work presented may be preliminary and may have undergone only limited peer review.'
They added: 'Frequently, the presentations represent work in progress. Unfortunately, may projects fail to live up to their early promise; in some cases, fatal flaws emerge. Press coverage at this early stage may leave the public with the false impression that the data are in fact mature, the methods valid, and the findings widely accepted.'
They said this could give rise to unfounded hope or anxiety in patients, who may seek useless or dangerous tests and treatments.
The researchers call on reporters to emphasise the preliminary nature of the findings they report and said scientists should also emphasise the limitations of their work when talking to the media.
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