How Research Can Be Distorted

Scientists are dedicated to finding new truths. But they’re also dedicated to their careers, and they’re often dedicated to corporate sponsors of their work.

That’s one reason why scientific research isn’t often merely published but instead spun like a product or a political slogan. In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Isabelle Boutron of the University of Paris detailed the concept of scientific spin and how it plays out.

Boutron (bio, Twitter) started by asking a very basic question: Does the public really have access to all research results? The answer is no.

“When you’re reading the scientific literature, you’re only seeing half of it,” she said.

What happens, she said, is “selective publication” of results. One famous example occurred with antidepressant drugs. In one study, of 74 antidepressant trials registered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, only about 70 were published. And the studies that were published were more inclined to overestimate the beneficial effects of the treatment in question.

Beyond that, even if trials are published, they’re often not published in full. For example, 65% of harm outcomes per trial were incompletely reported.

In a study from JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – researchers compared published articles with scientific protocols. They found that 62% of trials had at least one primary outcome that was changed, introduced or omitted.

Finally, there is the issue of how the findings – even if reported – are interpreted. There are always shades of gray in how a scientist can assess or interpret the raw findings.

“Scientists are rarely neutral regarding the results of their study,” she said. “They frequently strongly believe in their hypothesis.” They also know that the results will have an impact on the kind of publication that accepts their work – not to mention their future career path.

This program is funded by Fondation Ipsen and under the aegis of the Fondation de France. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

Isabelle Boutron
Professor of epidemiology, Université de Paris
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