Monday, April 07, 2008

Eeyore's view: biased reporting of research

"The literature is biased towards a positive, optimistic view of progress", posited Muir Grey as he opens his plenary session on "the deficiency of peer review". Extracts from scholarly papers indicated that the way in which evidence is presented can distort the conclusions drawn from it (e.g. - "most reviews published in peer reviewed journals or funded by industry have serious methodological flaws that limit their value to guide decisions" - Jadad et al, 2000, BMJ).

Grey accepted that some may suggest he has "an Eeyore view" and that peer review is not the only problem - journals can only report what they are given, and the problems begin further up the chain. Is it a failure to submit "negative" manuscripts or a choice by editors not to publish? (Grey had considered setting up The Journal of Negative Results.) Some researchers are simply not reporting negative results, and industry can influence the reporting of trials it sponsors. We depend on industry to invest, but we are uncomfortable with their influence and "this bias toward the positive".

Grey's proposed solutions:

1. Good systematic reviews - "the most highly-cited type of publication", but not all are good. There are just as many problems in the reporting of these reviews.

2. Better systems and skills - peer review, editing. What do we mean by peer review? "Like democracy, it's better than the alternatives, but everyone uses the word in different ways." What do we want it to achieve, and how do we know if it's achieving it?
We need to improve standards of reporting, and work with readers ("caveat lector") to ensure they are aware that there may be more to reported research than meets the eye.
The Equator Network is intended to train peer reviewers, editors, publishers and authors in how best to report evidence-based research.

In an unexpected turn (that indicates the penetration of such issues), Grey discussed the carbon footprint of the NHS and his plans for reducing it through the work of his recently-set-up not-for-profit organisation, "Getting Knowledge into Action".

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