Last week we discussed the problem of health research which intentionally or innocently released erroneous findings. Today we find a recent article in the British Medical Journal, Evidence-Based Medicine, which discusses use of “spin” in psychology and psychiatric research. (BMJ Article) The authors defined spin as use of language in reporting results from research that tries to put a positive light on non-significant or even negative findings or is used to obfuscate the real results. Spin may include selective outcome reporting, use of dubious statistical techniques and manipulation of figures and graphs. The authors were also interested in whether the presence of industry funding was linked to more use of spin. They looked at 116 randomized control trials which had non-significant outcomes on the primary variable studied. They found spin in 65 of those, including twice in titles and almost always in the abstracts, which are the most likely part of a published study to be read. Twelve of these studies had industry funding, but there was no association between such funding and the use of spin. In fact, trials funded by public sources were most likely to have spin. Spin is obviously a concern because the whole point of medical research is to give clinicians guidance on how or if they should change current medical practice or treatments. Misleading descriptions of the outcomes of research have the potential to inflict harm by changing medical practice in an unwarranted manner. Why do people use spin? Obviously people tend to regard a positive outcome as a better thing, so researchers expect to get more recognition and potentially more funding if they report positive results. And once again, medical journals are clearly failing in doing their jobs. We are counting on the editorial staff of these publications to ensure that research is high quality and that the results are reported in a neutral and objective manner.
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The Healthy Skeptic is a website about the health care system, and is written by Kevin Roche, who has many years of experience working in the health industry through Roche Consulting, LLC. Mr. Roche is available to assist health care companies through consulting arrangements and may be reached at email@example.com.