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The importance of abstracts and press releases: the issue of "spin"

Peter Gill
Last edited 20th September 2012

Let’s be honest. Most researchers and clinicians only read the abstracts of research studies. This is true even when they diligently search out and find the original article that inspired a news headline. A cynical colleague suggested that people only read the Tweets of someone that only read the abstract of the article. People are busy and pressed for time; skimming abstracts is an efficient way to stay up-to-date with research findings without onerously sifting through pages of details. People want the bottom line. But this approach inherently relies on journals to ensure accuracy in abstract reporting.

Well, it seems this strategy is problematic for many reasons, particularly because of “spin” or “specific reporting emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment.” A recent study in PLoS Medicine sought to quantify this problem: the authors identified two-arm, parallel-group RCTs, searched for associated press releases, and examined both for the presence of “spin.”

What they found was concerning: 47% of press releases and 40% of abstracts contained “spin.” After completing a multivariable analysis, “spin” in the article abstract was the only factor associated with “spin” in the press release (RR, 5.6; CI, 2.8-11.0; P<0.001). Therefore, the major driver of inaccurately reported findings was written by the author. In fact, 31% of press releases misinterpreted the results from the trial, either over- (86%) or under- (14%) estimating the benefit of the therapy.

Press releases are an important part of research dissemination. A study completed earlier this year in the BMJ by Evidence Live Faculty Lisa Schwartz and Steve Woloshin found that high quality press releases by journals can influence media coverage of the associated article. Increased coverage is beneficial if the press release is accurate which relies heavily on the abstract.

People involved in conducting research understand the importance of the abstract. This is the first piece read by a journal editor once submitted, and the decision to peer review largely relies on the authors ability to ‘sell’ their study in 300 words or less. Therefore, there is an incentive for authors to (over) emphasize the main results of the study in a manner that is usually critiqued in the peer review phase. While changes may be made to the full-text article to “dumb down” the authors conclusions, it is unclear how much the abstract changes as a result of peer review.

Realistically, the previously described process is unlikely to change, and everyone is not going to start reading the full-text article, particularly the media. Therefore, the onus is on journals to take an active role to ensure accuracy in abstract reporting and press releases. If they don’t, who will? If you want to learn more about what journals are doing to tackle this problem, come and ask the editors yourself at Evidence Live 2013.

*Note: this blog has also been posted on Evidence Live Blog.

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