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Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn out to be False: the Case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

 
François Gonon, Jan-Pieter Konsman, David Cohen and Thomas Boraud, Plos One, 2012

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Press release by Plos One

Newspapers biased toward reporting early studies that may later be refuted : 7 of top 10 ADHD studies covered by media later attenuated or refuted without much attention

Newspaper coverage of biomedical research leans heavily toward reports of initial findings, which are frequently attenuated or refuted by later studies, leading to disproportionate media coverage of potentially misleading early results, according to a report published Sep. 12 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers, led by Francois Gonon of the University of Bordeaux, used ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) as a test case and identified 47 scientific research papers published during the 1990’s on the topic that were covered by 347 newspaper articles. Of the top 10 articles covered by the media, they found that 7 were initial studies. All 7 were either refuted or strongly attenuated by later research, but these later studies received much less media attention than the earlier papers. Only one out of the 57 newspaper articles echoing on these subsequent studies mentioned that the corresponding initial finding has been attenuated. The authors write that, if this phenomenon is generalizable to other health topics, it likely causes a great deal of distortion in health science communication.

Abstract

Context: Because positive biomedical observations are more often published than those reporting no effect, initial observations are often refuted or attenuated by subsequent studies.

Objective: To determine whether newspapers preferentially report on initial findings and whether they also report on subsequent studies.

Methods: We focused on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Using Factiva and PubMed databases, we identified 47 scientific publications on ADHD published in the 1990s and soon echoed by 347 newspapers articles. We selected the ten most echoed publications and collected all their relevant subsequent studies until 2011. We checked whether findings reported in each “top 10” publication were consistent with previous and subsequent observations. We also compared the newspaper coverage of the “top 10” publications to that of their related scientific studies.

Results: Seven of the "top 10" publications were initial studies and the conclusions in six of them were either refuted or strongly attenuated subsequently. The seventh was not confirmed or refuted, but its main conclusion appears unlikely. Among the three "top 10" that were not initial studies, two were confirmed subsequently and the third was attenuated. The newspaper coverage of the "top 10" publications (223 articles) was much larger than that of the 67 related studies (57 articles). Moreover, only one of the latter newspaper articles reported that the corresponding "top 10" finding had been attenuated. The average impact factor of the scientific journals publishing studies echoed by newspapers (17.1 n=56) was higher (p<0.0001) than that corresponding to related publications that were not echoed (6.4 n=56).

Conclusion: Because newspapers preferentially echo initial ADHD findings appearing in prominent journals, they report on uncertain findings that are often refuted or attenuated by subsequent studies. If this media reporting bias generalizes to health sciences, it represents a major cause of distortion in health science communication.