Advancements in the fields of science and medicine, though results of serendipity from time to time, are largely attributed to labours in scientific research.

Worryingly, there have been many concerns raised regarding the standards of published research of late. From under-reporting side effects in clinical trials and concealing failed scientific hypotheses, to blatant plagiarism of scientific papers – these manners only blemish the nobility of research in the betterment of knowledge and information.

Majority of medical news lacks qualified commentary

Published findings alone do not drive the progression of science. Critique and detailed analyses by independent scientific experts, and intellectual discussions between professionals and the lay public alike, all play pivotal roles in steering the course of scientific research.

Take for example, the controversial paper that was published by Dr Andrew Wakefield in the Lancet in 1998 which declared unfounded links between vaccination and autism. Had there not been debate or appraisal by scientific experts over his findings, Wakefield’s fraudulent publication would not have been identified, and the wellbeing of the public would have been gravely affected – more severely than it already has.

However, a recent analysis revealed that out of 591 news articles covering 131 medical researches published in major medical journals in early 2013, only one-sixth included comments from a subject expert who was unaffiliated with the study.

Other critics on the news articles on the other hand, often had conflicts of interest – 54% had a professional conflict of interest and one-third was financial conflicts. Approximately 25% of other independent commenters had no relevant clinical or academic expertise on the topic of discussion, and were merely spokespeople.

“We were surprised by the low proportion of news reports that included comments," said co-author of the analysis Dr. Andrew Grey, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

"The average person should be aware that commenters in health new stories quite frequently have (conflicts of interest) that are relevant to the topic at hand, that are frequently not reported and quite likely to influence the disposition of the comments towards the research in question."

Conflicts of interest avoidable with fact-based commentary

According to Dr Gary Schwitzer, adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis, the lack of autonomous commentary and conflict disclosure has been a long-standing problem, yet the issue still persists.

"Of the 2300 stories we've reviewed, only about half get a satisfactory score on these criteria," said Schwitzer, who is also a founder of the medical news regulator site, which sets 10 criteria to determine that a medical news story is of high quality, one of which includes that the story contains an independent commenter who holds no conflicts of interest.

While associate editor at the British Medical Journal, Jeane Lenzer, agrees with Schwitzer, she believes that the term “intellectual conflict” is not appropriate.

“The people who know the most about something are always going to have strong opinions about it, and nobody should be adjudicated on that,” she said.

However, Schwitzer explained that it is still possible for experts to put forward their comments without inducing conflicts of interest.

“There is a weight to the evidence,” he said. “So an analytical, fact-and-evidence-based commentary about another researcher's findings does not necessarily equate to an intellectual bias or conflict."

Unreliable critique risk deceiving readers

"The call to develop and evaluate strategies to include more genuinely independent and informed commenters in coverage of medical research is welcome, as part of wider efforts to make medical journalism healthier — in media new and old,” said Dr Ray Moynihan, from the Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice at Bond University, Australia.

According to Schwitzer, journalists who cover the topic of healthcare should be aware of the prevalence of conflicts of interest in scientific research.

"If you know this but fail to report on it, you don't have any business reporting on these issues," he said.

"Because there's a good chance you're misleading your audience and hurting more than helping."

True to what Schwitzer believes, the magnitude of influence of such medical news lies mainly in the news readers, who may either bring the topic for discussion and critical analysis, or simply propagate the false stories through social media.

"If we could get more people to look at how we independently and critically vet the evidence as it's presented in news stories, I think high schoolers and maybe even eighth graders can learn to cut through the smoke screen and become better critical thinkers," he said. MIMS

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