Summary: A review of Alzheimer’s research papers finds news media is more likely to report on breakthroughs if the study’s authors omit a reference to mice in their title. Papers that acknowledge mice in their title receive less media coverage. Omitting mice from a paper’s title generates twice the number of tweets than ones that mention the animals.
Source: Humane Society International
A study of media coverage of 623 scientific papers on Alzheimer disease research conducted in mice reveals that the news media are more likely to write a story about alleged breakthroughs or medical research findings if research authors omit mice from their studies’ titles. On the other hand, papers that acknowledge mice in their titles result in limited media coverage.
In addition, the study titled “What’s not in the news headlines or titles of Alzheimer disease articles? #In mice” conducted by Dr Marcia Triunfol of Humane Society International and Dr Fabio Gouveia of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil, and published in PLoS Biology, found that the resulting media coverage generated by papers with “missing mice” titles is also more likely to omit mice from their headlines.
This is of concern because scientific findings obtained from animal experiments should be reported with caution due to their limited relevance to human health. The biology and physiology of mice and other animals differ significantly to that of humans, such that research results obtained in animals often fail to be replicated in people.
Despite that, the scientific value of articles downplaying that they relied on animal models is actually inflated by their disproportionate media exposure, raising concerns that the public and patients are being misled.
Dr Triunfol, one of the study’s authors and Humane Society International’s scientific advisor, says: “There are around 200 animal models to study Alzheimer’s disease, and yet the vast majority of potential treatments discovered through experiments on mice are ineffective when tested in humans.
Despite this significant flaw in the animal models, we show that articles glossing over the fact that the results were obtained using animals are given increased visibility and therefore implied credibility by the media.
The reporting of animal research needs to be addressed with far greater caution and more prominent disclaimers in mainstream media to ensure the public understands that the results of animal experiments may have little to no relevance to human patients.”
The study’s authors looked at research published in 2018 and 2019 in open-access journals and indexed in PubMed. Of the 623 papers reviewed, 405 added ‘mice’ in the titles but 218 made no mention of mice, despite the fact that in both groups mice were the main research subjects.
Using Altmetric Explorer, a web-based platform that allows users to browse a report on digital attention data for research papers, Dr. Gouveia reported that he and Dr. Triunfol found that “when authors omit mice from the paper’s title, writers of news stories reporting on these papers tend to follow suit. What we see is that in most cases their headlines do not mention mice either.”
The study also shows that papers that omit mice from their titles generate twice the number of social media tweets compared to papers that do mention mice in the title (18.8 tweets against 9.7 tweets, on average).
Some examples of media stories based on mouse results but without mentioning mice in their headlines are “Common nutrient supplementation may hold the answers to combating Alzheimer’s disease”, “How flashing lights could treat Alzheimer’s disease” and “How Exercise Might ‘Clean’ the Alzheimer’s Brain,” among many others.
Such headlines risk giving the impression that these findings apply to people with Alzheimer’s disease, when in reality they apply to mice only, until/unless new scientific evidence is produced.
The problem of “missing mice” in the media is so common, that in March 2019 @justsaysinmice burst onto Twitter (now with 70.5K followers) with the aim of drawing attention to headline news stories in which mice — the subject of the breakthrough — go unacknowledged.
Drs Triunfol and Gouveia call for implementation of editorial policies, such as the ARRIVE guidelines (an internationally accepted checklist of recommendations to improve the reporting of research involving animals), to require that titles of experimental articles identify the species and/or tissue sources used in the research, if not derived from humans.
By improving the quality of scientific reporting, we can improve the accuracy of science media news and encourage greater transparency concerning the true state of affairs in Alzheimer’s disease research.
What’s not in the news headlines or titles of Alzheimer disease articles? #InMice
There is increasing scrutiny around how science is communicated to the public. For instance, a Twitter account @justsaysinmice (with 70.4K followers in January 2021) was created to call attention to news headlines that omit that mice, not humans, are the ones for whom the study findings apply.
This is the case of many headlines reporting on Alzheimer disease (AD) research. AD is characterized by a degeneration of the human brain, loss of cognition, and behavioral changes, for which no treatment is available.
Around 200 rodent models have been developed to study AD, even though AD is an exclusively human condition that does not occur naturally in other species and appears impervious to reproduction in artificial animal models, an information not always disclosed. It is not known what prompts writers of news stories to either omit or acknowledge, in the story’s headlines, that the study was done in mice and not in humans.
Here, we raised the hypothesis that how science is reported by scientists plays a role on the news reporting.
To test this hypothesis, we investigated whether an association exists between articles’ titles and news’ headlines regarding the omission, or not, of mice. To this end, we analyzed a sample of 623 open-access scientific papers indexed in PubMed in 2018 and 2019 that used mice either as models or as the biological source for experimental studies in AD research.
We found a significant association (p < 0.01) between articles’ titles and news stories’ headlines, revealing that when authors omit the species in the paper’s title, writers of news stories tend to follow suit. We also found that papers not mentioning mice in their titles are more newsworthy and significantly more tweeted than papers that do.
Our study shows that science reporting may affect media reporting and asks for changes in the way we report about findings obtained with animal models used to study human diseases.