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Can you trust an article’s abstract?

Abstract spin.jpg

In a news post for Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty highlights a “troublesome” phenomenon in scientific publishing: the prevalence of abstract ‘spin’. Flaherty notes that the practice of exaggerating claims or making inappropriate interpretations in abstracts is ethically problematic and, if physicians do not read full publications, may even impact treatment decisions.

She discusses a study that evaluated spin among 116 journal articles. These articles reported findings from randomised controlled trials that did not meet their primary endpoints, and were published in ‘well-regarded’ psychiatry and psychology journals.

Surprisingly, 56% of article abstracts were judged to contain spin, including focusing solely on statistically significant results or drawing inappropriate conclusions regarding nonsignificant results.

Furthermore, 15% of abstracts contained spin in both the results and conclusions sections. Even article titles were susceptible, with spin noted in 2% of cases.

So, how can this issue be eliminated? Flaherty and the study’s authors suggest that journal editors should ask reviewers to comment on spin. However, as Flaherty discuss with Professor Philip Cohen, abstract review should already form part of the peer review process. Problematically, the study cites research reporting that, in fact, 15% of peer reviewers asked authors to spin manuscripts. Cohen and Flaherty also note that, alongside spin, publication bias — leading to the non-publication of negative or null results — plays a role in distorting the available information.

Perhaps increased usage of reporting guidelines, such as CONSORT for Abstracts, has a further role to play in discouraging spin, and open access initiatives, like Plan S, in improving access to full publications? We look forward to seeing how medical publishing rises to the challenge of quashing abstract spin.

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Summary by Beatrice Tyrrell DPhil from Aspire Scientific

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With thanks to our sponsors, Aspire Scientific Ltd and NetworkPharma Ltd


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