October 21, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Science press releases behaving badly: time to start tracking their retractions?

Science Press Release Retraction
Science press releases can be retracted or corrected. Retraction stamp part of image from Medscape

Over at RetractionWatch, their team does a great job following retractions of science papers. Sadly, the number of published manuscript retractions gives them more than enough material to post several times a day.

There’s another phenomenon going on that I think might warrant their increased attention: the possibly rising number of retractions or corrections of science press releases (PR).

Gary Schwitzer, over at Health News Review, is reviewing science PRs, which is really interesting reading. I highly recommend that you check it out.

While recent data suggest that science pubs themselves are increasingly written with intense, positive words that might tend to hype things, PRs on science papers can be darn right flamboyant and often get the science wrong. A good example is the squeeze stem cell PR paper flap that I blogged about yesterday.

That PR was an example of a PR running far amok, but it is far from being alone. Just how often do PRs on science papers get things so bad or cause such a fuss that they are pulled (aka retracted)? I don’t see any data out there, but it’s got to be fairly often. I’ve seen it happen numerous times over the last few years.

Should somebody be tracking retractions of science PRs?

It might be interesting to follow such PR retractions and collect data on whether they relate to particular fields, whether particular institutions are overrepresented in the PR hype, and if there is an increasing number of science PR retractions. What do you folks over at RetractionWatch think? I note that they have posted relatively often on press releases.

Of course, one problem with this idea is that PR retractions don’t get published. Another difficult issue is that institutions going off the deep end with their PRs often do not retract or correct the PRs even if they are bad.

What do you think of science PRs behaving badly? How often is it the PR writer versus the scientists that they are quoting who are engaging in hype? Both? Does scarce funding play a role in this?

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