'Spin' in published biomedical literature: A methodological systematic review

PLoS Biol. 2017 Sep 11;15(9):e2002173. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2002173. eCollection 2017 Sep.

Abstract

In the scientific literature, spin refers to reporting practices that distort the interpretation of results and mislead readers so that results are viewed in a more favourable light. The presence of spin in biomedical research can negatively impact the development of further studies, clinical practice, and health policies. This systematic review aims to explore the nature and prevalence of spin in the biomedical literature. We searched MEDLINE, PreMEDLINE, Embase, Scopus, and hand searched reference lists for all reports that included the measurement of spin in the biomedical literature for at least 1 outcome. Two independent coders extracted data on the characteristics of reports and their included studies and all spin-related outcomes. Results were grouped inductively into themes by spin-related outcome and are presented as a narrative synthesis. We used meta-analyses to analyse the association of spin with industry sponsorship of research. We included 35 reports, which investigated spin in clinical trials, observational studies, diagnostic accuracy studies, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses. The nature of spin varied according to study design. The highest (but also greatest) variability in the prevalence of spin was present in trials. Some of the common practices used to spin results included detracting from statistically nonsignificant results and inappropriately using causal language. Source of funding was hypothesised by a few authors to be a factor associated with spin; however, results were inconclusive, possibly due to the heterogeneity of the included papers. Further research is needed to assess the impact of spin on readers' decision-making. Editors and peer reviewers should be familiar with the prevalence and manifestations of spin in their area of research in order to ensure accurate interpretation and dissemination of research.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Prejudice
  • Propaganda*
  • Public Relations
  • Publishing*

Grant support

The authors received no specific funding for this work.