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November 9, 2017
Responsible Communication of Basic Biomedical Research
By Jon R. Lorsch, Ph.D.
Director, National Institute of General Medical Sciences
When I joined NIGMS about four years ago, I was struck by the number of press releases from journals and grantee institutions that came across my desk each day. Many of them focused on a recently published paper and failed to explain how the work fit into the broader field. Others overstated the research results to make them sound more exciting and closer to clinical application.
Around the same time, science communicators started writing articles and conducting studies about the effects of hyped research findings1,2,3,4. While these discussions focused on clinically-oriented research, we at NIGMS began thinking deeply about how the issue relates to basic biomedical science. On the heels of our work with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) on enhancing rigor and reproducibility in biomedical research, we started talking to them about this topic as well. Two years later, we were pleased to host their workshop on the Responsible Communication of Basic Biomedical Research: Enhancing Awareness and Avoiding Hype.
The June 22 meeting brought together a diverse group of science communicators who included early and established investigators, researchers who study science communications, academic and corporate communications officers, policy advisors and journalists. Each panelist represented a stakeholder group with a role in what panelists later called the “hype cycle” and shared their perspectives on the problems of hype, the incentives that cause it and recommendations for avoiding it. The meeting focused on basic biomedical research, but the discussions were also relevant to other areas of science.
In her keynote address, veteran science journalist Erika Check Hayden defined hype as “exaggerating the outcomes of research, for whatever motives people have, leading to potential negative effects due to inaccurate portrayal of research.” She credited this definition to Judith Greenberg, our deputy director.
The subsequent discussions highlighted the shared responsibility among all the stakeholder groups for improving science communication and changing the incentives for it. Panelists acknowledged that the excitement of a new scientific development might lead anyone—scientists, journals, communication officers, reporters—to extend the conclusions beyond the actual findings. They agreed that careful consideration should be given to deciding when to go public with findings.
When findings are ready to be shared broadly, panelists discussed changing the ways they’re communicated. They said press releases are overused and aren’t always needed to reach the intended audience. The journalists on the panel noted that they receive far too many press releases and that they generally do not use them in developing stories. Instead of preparing press releases or pitching new findings to reporters, they urged science communicators to share leads on work in progress and experts who can comment on stories in the news. A number of panelists, including scientists, university public information officers and journalists, talked about the value of discussing scientific research—and its complexity and uncertainty—with family, friends, acquaintances and others in their social networks. They said these conversations can go a long way in helping the public understand and appreciate the process of discovery.
NIGMS has already changed how we communicate about the research we support. For example, instead of focusing on a single paper or finding, our research stories for the public now regularly feature the overall arc of a field or follow a scientist’s career. We’re also working to increase our scrutiny and that of reviewers on how scientists communicate their conclusions in grant applications and what the lasting influence of their work has been on their fields. And communications is among the student skills that we hope to see developed by graduate programs supported through our new T32 funding opportunity announcement to be published this fall.
The workshop was a first step toward catalyzing a broader discussion on this topic, and we welcome your input on how the conversation could be advanced. You can read more about the workshop and the panelists’ recommendations in the meeting summary. You can also watch the entire meeting on the NIH Videocasting and Podcasting site.
1 Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study. Schwartz LM, Woloshin S, Andrews A, Stukel TA. BMJ. 2012 Jan 27;344:d8164. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d8164. PMID: 22286507.
2 Misrepresentation of randomized controlled trials in press releases and newscoverage: a cohort study. Yavchitz A, Boutron I, Bafeta A, Marroun I, Charles P, Mantz J, Ravaud P. PLoS Med. 2012;9(9):e1001308. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001308. Epub 2012 Sep 11. PMID: 22984354.
3 The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, Williams A, Venetis CA, Davies A, Ogden J, Whelan L, Hughes B, Dalton B, Boy F, Chambers CD. BMJ. 2014 Dec 9;349:g7015. doi: 10.1136/bmj.g7015. Erratum in: BMJ. 2014;349:g7666. PMID: 25498121.
4 This is why you shouldn’t believe that exciting new medical study. Julia Belluz. Vox. February 27, 2017.