“It's All In The Name”: How Titles of Publications Deceive Media.
(Thursday, June 17, 2021)
Many times, we read stories in the mass media about experimental breakthroughs that seems to solve major scientific questions, creating hype around the inventions and companies announcing them. Often hidden from the headlines is the fact these discoveries were made in small animal models and are years, if not decades, from being clinically relevant. This is done by crafty titles of articles that create an impression of much more advancement in product development than its real-life status. The stories are pitched by promotion departments to busy journalists, who in turn are looking for the next story that would garner the most “eyeballs”. A report published this week took the case of media reports on research in drugs for Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). AD is characterized by severe neurological symptoms seen exclusively in humans. Most of the basic research, on the other hand, is conducted in rodents where more than 200 mouse models have been developed to study different aspects of AD. Artificial animal models have been highly unreliable for predicting the application of the research in human patients. So, how does the reporters of these news fail to omit this important factoid about the news? A survey reported this week points out that most peer reviewed publications discussing animal experiments for AD, omitted that the experiment was conducted in rodents in the title of the article. It is well known that the title of an article strongly affects how many readers it attracts. Flashy titles are routinely used in news headlines and event marketing. Titles act as tag lines to attract audience, distribution of information in social media, and marketing materials. In scientific publications, titles highlight key findings of the study to better attract readers’ interest. Think of the title as a micro-abstract of the article. Readers form assumptions in their minds about the article just based on the title of the article. Once hooked, the reader’s opinion of the research is more favorable, leading to more citations and discussion (or “hype”). Journalists are no different. Once a publication has been shortlisted to create the next lead story, there is higher likelihood that the early nature of the discovery gets hidden in the sub-text of the news story. The authors of the report found that “when authors omit the species in the paper’s title, writers of news stories tend to follow suit.” It was also found that “papers not mentioning mice in their titles are more newsworthy and significantly more tweeted than papers that do.” This is not going to change, as it serves the purpose of the authors of both the scientific article and the media reports. However, it does raise a cautionary advise to all readers, see if the news story you are spreading to your friends, is real or just hype.
Dr. Mukesh Kumar
Founder & CEO, FDAMap
Linkedin: Mukesh Kumar, PhD, RAC