Background: Efficient, undistorted communication of the results of medical research is important to physicians, the scientific community, and the public. Information that first appears in the scientific literature is frequently retransmitted in the popular press. Does popular coverage of medical research in turn amplify the effects of that research on the scientific community?
Methods: To test the hypothesis that researchers are more likely to cite papers that have been publicized in the popular press, we compared the number of references in the Science Citation Index to articles in the New England Journal of Medicine that were covered by The New York Times with the number of references to similar articles that were not covered by the Times. We also performed the comparison during a three-month period when the Times was on strike but continued to prepare an "edition of record" that was not distributed; doing so enabled us to address the possibility that coverage in the Times was simply a marker of the most important articles, which would therefore be cited more frequently, even without coverage in the popular press.
Results: Articles in the Journal that were covered by the Times received a disproportionate number of scientific citations in each of the 10 years after the Journal articles appeared. The effect was strongest in the first year after publication, when Journal articles publicized by the Times received 72.8 percent more scientific citations than control articles. This effect was not present for articles published during the strike; articles covered by the Times during this period were no more likely to be cited than those not covered.
Conclusions: Coverage of medical research in the popular press amplifies the transmission of medical information from the scientific literature to the research community.