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Researchers from Australia have found that more than a quarter of biomedical scientific papers may utilise practices that distort the interpretation of results. (Photograph: Who is Danny/Shutterstock)
0 Comments Sep 12, 2017 | News Asia Pacific

The spin in scientific papers uncovered

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SYDNEY, Australia: In a new study, researchers from Australia have found more than a quarter of biomedical scientific papers may utilise practices that distort the interpretation of results or mislead readers so that the results are viewed more favourably—a practice known as “spin”. The highest, but also greatest, variability in the prevalence of spin was present in the clinical trials included in the review.

Researchers Kellia Chiu, Dr Quinn Grundy and Prof. Lisa Bero, from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Pharmacy, used meta-analysis to examine the association of spin with industry sponsorship of research. They reviewed 35 reports that investigated spin in clinical trials, observational studies, diagnostic accuracy studies, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, with the nature of spin varying depending on the study design.

To select the reports to be included, the researchers searched MEDLINE, PreMEDLINE, Embase and Scopus and hand-searched reference lists for all reports that entailed the measurement of spin in the biomedical literature for at least one outcome. Thereafter, two independent coders extracted data on the characteristics of the selected reports and their included studies and all spin-related outcomes. In the researchers’ findings, more than 26 per cent of papers identified as systematic reviews or meta-analyses contained spin. This figure rose to up to 84 per cent in papers reporting on non-randomised trials.

“We see an urgent need for further research to determine the institutional or cultural factors that could contribute to such a high prevalence of spin in scientific literature—and to better understand the potential impact of spin on research, clinical practice and policy,” said Bero.

According to the study, while spin was variably defined across the 35 studies, a wide variety of strategies to spin results were identified, such as

• making inappropriate claims about statistically non-significant results

• making inappropriate recommendations for clinical practice that were not supported by study results

• attributing causality when that was not possible

• selective reporting, such as emphasising only statistically significant results or subsets of data in the conclusion

• presenting data in a more favourable light than was warranted, for example writing overly optimistic abstracts, misleadingly describing the study design and under-reporting adverse events.

Lead author Chiu pointed out that one possibility for combating the publishing of spin would be to publish results alongside other interpretations from multiple researchers. Chiu also noted that researchers, peer reviewers and editors all have a responsibility to remain vigilant for spin.

“The scientific academic community would benefit from the development of tools that help us effectively identify spin and ensure accurate and impartial portrayal and interpretation of results,” said Chiu.

The study, titled “ ‘Spin’ in published biomedical literature: A methodological systematic review”, was published on 11 September in the open-access journal PLOS Biology.

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