The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Addressing the Scientific “Hype Pipeline:” Communicating Neuroscience Accurately

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) picked up its discussion of ethical issues related to neuroscience early in the afternoon by inviting four speakers to offer insights on the ethics of neuroscience communication. The speakers included Ushma Neill, Ph.D., Editor at Large of the Journal of Clinical Investigation; Stephen Ward, Ph.D., Director of the George S. Turnbull Center at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon-Portland; Timothy Caulfield, LL.M., F.R.S.C., F.C.A.H.S., Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, Canada; and Eric Racine, Ph.D., Director of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal.

The speakers agreed that many different parties, ranging from scientists to journal editors to journalists to press release writers, have a responsibility to ensure that neuroscience research communicated to the public be accurate and avoid hype. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Hype, for example, can enter at many points in the science communication process, in a sort of “hype pipeline,” Caulfield suggested.

Science journalists have been known to hype stories, Caulfield said. News stories, beyond exaggerating the importance of research findings, can also include false claims, distorted claims, and omissions. And with the proliferation of the internet, blogs, and social media come new forms of journalism and information sharing that do more than just overhype scientific research. They also might not present information impartially or be free of vested interests.

Ward suggested creating a coalition of scientists, science communicators and organizations to “develop a system of writers and informers who at least can provide some segment of the population a place to go” for more reliable science information.

But Caulfield noted that the media is not the only problem. “So much of the hype is embedded in the research,” he said. Some of that hype can originate before the paper is even published – for instance, in the abstracts that the authors write. Researchers also often feel significant pressures to produce high-impact work, ranging from peer pressure and competition among scientists to the pressure to produce results that have commercial application or societal benefit.

Neill noted that journals try to combat hype and ethical lapses in the papers and press releases they publish. Journals have various methods at their disposal to detect fabricated and falsified data and plagiarism. A tool from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) is able to detect manipulations that scientists might make to figures in their research papers. Journals may deploy these strategies to differing degrees. Neill also said that journals must walk a fine line between generating journalists’ and the public’s interest in a study and overhyping that study.

Ultimately, exaggeration can spread to all steps of the process by which science reaches the public. This “pipeline of hype” may be more like a “cycle of hype,” Caulfield said, as each part of that pipeline feeds into the other parts. Promising sciences can be oversold; overhyped or inaccurately communicated science can also result in poorly informed public policy or research funding decisions, he said.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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