Medical Journals are publicity whores too

By AnthonyLast updated: Monday, June 20, 2005 • Save & Share3 Comments

One of the more interesting aspects of medical journals, and perhaps science journals in general, is that despite being supposed bastions of rationality and concerned with the application of evidence they are not averse to a bit of “spinning” themselves. News stories about medical papers do not create themselves. Embargoed press releases about are given to news broadcasters before the studies are offically published, who all too often are not capable of reporting the story with any sense of balance, or at times accuracy.

On any given Friday, more often that not, you will find a health story either on the Today Programme, the BBC health web pages or any of the other news providers with its origin in the pages of the BMJ or the Lancet based on the results of one study. The Royal Society, recently savaged by the editor of the The Lancet – Richard Horton, has criticised the Lancet today for starting unfounded scare stories.

Poor editorial judgment at The Lancet has fuelled panic over issues such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, hormone replacement therapy and genetically modified (GM) crops, the eminent medical researchers charge in a letter that the journal has refused to publish.

The signatories, thirty fellows of the Royal Society, two of whom are Nobel laureates, accuse it of favouring “desperate headline-seeking” over sound science, to the detriment of public health. “Under the editorship of Richard Horton, the publication of badly conducted and poorly refereed scare stories has had devastating consequences for individual and public health, in the UK and abroad, and carried a high economic cost,” they say.

For me personally the nadir of this activity came with the rushed publication of the Lancet Study on Iraq deaths, a subject I have covered here in One study does not give the answer. The day the study was announced Richard Horton did the rounds of broadcasters to defend the paper and more importantly put forward his views about the Iraq war. That this study was released immediately prior to the America election was entirely coincidental.

Horton: that these findings ought to come out as quickly as possible in order to influence the pressure on the ground. In a very rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq persuaded us and certainly persuaded the authors that…

Interviewer:In order to influence the American election?

Horton: No, in order to influence the military strategy on the ground in Iraq.

In a webpage at the BBC Horton says:

“For the sake of a country in crisis and for a people under daily threat of violence, the evidence we publish today must change heads as well as pierce hearts.”

Even if one believes that Horton was not trying to influence the US election, his stated aims were an attempt to influence US military planning [I'm not aware he attended Sandhurst] and public opinion, with the fortunate side effect of getting lots of press attention. Is this really the purpose of what was once widely regarded as one of the more sober medical journals?

Horton was also involved in the MMR disaster, Horton was former Royal Free colleague of Andrew Wakefield, a subject the journalist Brian Deer covers in great depth.

“A lancet can be an arched window to let in the light or it can be a sharp surgical instrument to cut out the dross and I intend to use it in both senses”

These were the words of Thomas Wakley when he founded The Lancet in 1823, perhaps his ghost is wandering the offices, sharpened lancet in hand. Let’s hope so.

3 Responses to “Medical Journals are publicity whores too”

Comment from RS
Time 21/6/2005 at 10:30 am

I know the journals are bad. But I think the issuing of press releases by individual academic departments or even by researchers themselves, often for unpublished data, is a really pernicious force in science journalism. If I hear about one more person that has found the cause of/cure for the disease I work on…

Comment from John J. Coupal
Time 26/6/2005 at 3:24 am

Editors of medical and science journals are finding it increasingly harder to present political beliefs as fact. With the Internet and alternate sources of information, the stranglehold on a forum is no longer possible for the eager editor. That’s to the benefit of the public which ultimately funds the studies that such editors try to mangle.