Of mice and media

A study in PLOS Biology has spotted a link between studies on mice and their media coverage: when the paper omits “mice” from the title, headlines on the study are likely to do the same. The authors argue that this could create misleading media coverage by implying that the study was done on people.

The researchers investigated 623 open-access papers on Alzheimer’s disease, each of which described a study done on mice but not humans. They used online sampling data and statistical analyses to make judgements about each paper’s press coverage.

“We need to remember that most people only read the headlines of news stories,” says Marcia Triunfol, co-author on the paper and a researcher at the Humane Society International.

“Thus, if the headline omits that the Alzheimer’s study was done in mice, most keep the impression that the study findings apply to humans, which is not true. We now know that virtually all findings obtained in animal studies in Alzheimer’s Disease do not replicate to humans.”

A total of 405 papers in the study were “declarative”: that is, they included “mice” or “mouse” in their titles (or a foreign-language equivalent). These declarative papers were more likely to be covered in the media with headlines mentioning that the study was done on mice.

The 218 non-declarative papers, however, were more likely to be described with media headlines that didn’t mention mice. These non-declarative studies also received more media coverage, on average, and were shared more widely on social media.

Merryn McKinnon, a researcher at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, ANU, who was not involved in the study, says this may be linked to the priorities of newsrooms.

“As soon as you see ‘mice’ in the title, that immediately removes some of the news value of the story, because it limits the timeliness to a certain extent. ‘A potential cure found in mice’ reads as ‘we won’t know if it works in humans for another 20 years’,” says McKinnon.

Press releases and university media communications on papers were also likely to follow the trend, with declarative papers generating more declarative press releases. This means that university and institute media communications are unlikely to be responsible for the trend. “Press releases do not explain the association we found,” write the authors.

Triunfol says the next step will be to understand scientists’ language choices in paper writing: “We will investigate why scientists choose to omit mice from their studies’ titles.”

“There is a responsibility on all sides to ensure that the scientific information communicated is accurate,” says McKinnon.

“The purpose of the title in a research article is to help other researchers get a very quick understanding of the key findings. If all you’re doing is reading the headline of the paper, and it’s missing some key information, then your perception will also miss that key information – much like if you’re only reading the headline of a news article.”

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