Overall, 40 per cent of all medical studies that had failed to deliver a positive result had been the subject of spin by the researchers, says Kamal Mahtani, deputy director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine.
The worst excesses were in oncology (cancer) research. In reviewing 107 randomised-controlled trials—considered the ‘gold standard’ of medical research—Mahtani found that nearly half had elements of fraud or spin in order to show the therapies in a more glowing light when the underlying findings had discovered little or no benefit.
The three most common examples of spin or fraud were recommendations for clinical practices that were not supported by the findings, a misleading title to the study that suggested benefits that weren’t actually there, and selective reporting, or cherry-picking the data.
Commercial and financial influences were the main causes of spin and fraud. Reviewing studies that looked at the impact of sugar-sweetened drinks and weight gain, five of the six studies funded by the food industry found no association, whereas
10 of the 12 studies that were independent concluded that the drinks were a risk factor.
But many other cases of spin or fraud may well have no commercial link at all. Instead, the findings may clash with the personal beliefs of the researcher, or could be inspired by the possibilities of career advancement or achieving a greater media profile. In other words, scientists are as human as the rest of us.