Making sense of the literature

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2009 by Hanna

Biomed Central’s blog highlights the problem of defining what original research is. This is the problem of the same trial being reported in different papers so that when you get to compiling a meta-analysis you may be double counting or and overestimating the effectiveness of an intervention. This 1997 BMJ study by Tramer et al found that 17% of the published literature and 28% of patient data is duplicated, either overtly (after a bit of comparison) or covertly where different authors are used and so it is more difficult to tell if the papers are related. It would of course help if there was some compulsion to use the trial registry number or similar reference but as far as I know posting your trial plans with a registry is optional (and I wonder whether people do this retrospectively and only if they are happy with the results).

If it’s difficult for researchers and practitioners to make sense of the literature (and duplication is only one possible source of confusion) then how about the general public who find that everything causes cancer according to whichever newspaper they care to read? This study in Plos One looked at worldwide reporting of medical research and promisingly found that “Only 57% of front-page stories reporting on medical research are based on mature research, which tends to have a higher evidence level than research with preliminary findings”. I actually thought 57% was pretty good. I know Lord Drayson certainly argued at an RI debate earlier this year that science (and therefore health) reporting wasn’t that bad and he is making positive noises about evidence based policy so perhaps he’s right.


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