BMJ column; Research press releases need better policing.

free link to BMJ column


Last year Carmel Turner and I went to the Selling Sickness conference to present our case for making press releases better. We suggested that guidelines would be useful – and as I explain in the BMJ column, linked to above, guidelines have helped in the reporting of RCTs via the Consort guidelines.

The same could apply to press releases, which, considering some news stories are written entirely FROM press releases, would make sense.


Carmel and I came up with this as a starting point

     When is a press release appropriate?

What should a press release necessarily include, eg –

Conflicts of interest of the researchers or funders

The limitations of study (but what exactly does that mean?)

Who funded the study?

                  If a paper has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, is it the journalist or press officer’s job to question the accuracy of the abstract/discussion/conclusions? Has COPE/CONSORT guidance been followed by the journal?

                 Language in a press release – what constitutes a ‘breakthrough’?  Avoidance of causal language in observational studies

                 Surrogate outcomes

                 Relative and absolute risks, numbers needed to treat

                 Size of study

                 At the bench, in an animal (which?) or in humans?

                 Contextualised with systematic review – how does this add to what we already know? What gaps remain?

                 Where’s the paper? Can the journalist/reader access the paper (for free)?

                 Journal editorials and scientific commentary – do these give added ‘endorsement’?

                 Potential harm to patients of an intervention/treatment

                 Patients’ experience/anecdotes (what about patients whose experience was the opposite of the observed effect?)

                 Was there a control group? Was there drop-out from the study (if so, how much and why?)

                 News releases from conferences (sometimes multiple releases from different funders/institutions) Is reporting at a conference of peers peer review?


Ideally, journalists reporting a story from a press release would want to know whether the story conformed to ‘good press release’ criteria. Ideally, institutions, journals and individuals would sign up, at the grant proposal stage, to reporting their findings via these criteria, ensuring that the public got access to fairer information.

I hope that a journal – hopefully the BMJ – would take up this idea, trial it, and report back.

2 Responses to “BMJ column; Research press releases need better policing.”

  1. Adam Jacobs April 29, 2014 at 9:23 am #

    Excellent suggestions, Margaret. It’s absolutely true that a great many press releases are misleading for all the reasons you mention.

    However, I think it might be rather optimistic to think that the BMJ will take up the idea. Their recent press release on Tamiflu was truly dreadful, was massively misleading, but achieved what was no doubt its main aim of making all the front pages.

    The people who write press releases are far more interested in generating publicity than in good science. That seems to be true at the BMJ, and I’d be surprised if there were anywhere else where it weren’t true. I don’t know how you solve that problem.


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