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Conflicts of interest and expertise of independent commenters in news stories about medical research [Research]

BACKGROUND:

Media coverage of medical research influences the views and behaviours of clinicians, scientists and members of the public. We examined how frequently commenters in news stories about medical research have relevant expertise and have academic and financial conflicts, how often such conflicts are reported and whether there are associations between the conflicts and the disposition of the comments toward the findings of the source research.

METHODS:

We analyzed 104 independent comments in news stories on original clinical research published in high-impact medical journals from Jan. 1 to Mar. 31, 2013, and 21 related journal editorials. Main outcomes were prevalence of relevant academic and clinical expertise, prevalence and reporting of academic and financial conflicts of interest, and disposition of comments toward study findings.

RESULTS:

Only 1 in 6 news stories included independent comments. Overall, 25% of commenters and 0% of editorialists had neither relevant academic nor clinical expertise (p = 0.007). Among the 104 comments, an academic conflict of interest was present for 56 (54%), of which 25 (45%) were reported in the news stories. A financial conflict of interest was present for 33 (32%) of the comments, of which 11 (33%) were reported. When commenters’ conflicts of interest were congruent with the findings of the source research, 97% and 93% of comments associated with academic and financial conflicts of interest, respectively, were favourably disposed toward the research. These values were 16% and 17%, respectively, when the conflicts of interest were not congruent with the research findings.

INTERPRETATION:

Independent commenters in new stories about medical research may lack relevant academic or clinical expertise. Academic or financial conflicts of interest were frequently present among independent commenters but infrequently reported, and were often associated with the disposition of comments about the source research.

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