Getting (very) meta part 2: Press releases

Noah Haber

It’s been four weeks since CLAIMS was published, and we have now gotten a look at some of the discussion about the study. First up: the press releases.

The majority of our co-authors for CLAIMS are/were with either the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health, so it was fitting that we had press-releases from these institutions. In both cases, we initiated contact with the press offices, who then wrote initial draft press releases. We then made suggestions and edits to those releases. The Harvard University press release was published on June 5, with the UNC press release on June 19.

In the CLAIMS study itself, our sample had nine studies whose author list had at least one Harvard University affiliation listed, and only one from UNC. Both of these schools are two of the most respected and highest ranked institutions in the field. It is intuitive that big name private universities are more likely to garner press than less generally-recognizable schools, and that seems to be a factor when someone drops the Big H. So far it is looking like this also holds true for click generation, as we are getting more traffic from the Harvard University press releases (more on that once we have collected more data). Name recognition matters.

As for content in my opinion, they were generally very accurate (we should hope so, since we helped edit them). The HSPH press release focused a touch more on media misinterpretation than might be ideal through the use of a side quote, given that we can’t do much to distinguish between the impact of academia, media, and social media spin and preference. The UNC one was a bit more neutral in that regard. We should note that it is incredibly difficult to craft these statements, and it is near impossible to write something like this with perfect emphasis on all the subtleties of the study.

One interesting difference between the two was how each institution emphasized its own institutional role in the study. As an example, I was a doctoral student at HSPH when we did the main part of the research, but a postdoc at UNC when the article was published, so I have both affiliations for the publication. I was the same person in each press release, but my descriptors were notably different:

From Harvard University:

“Noah Haber, who recently completed his Sc.D. in health economics in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. . .”

From UNC:

“. . . Noah Haber, ScD, postdoctoral scholar at UNC’s Carolina Population Center. . .”

During this process, we learned first-hand just how incredibly difficult it is to write science for a general audience. In the case of our public explainer, we had the luxury of space; if a concept was best described in two paragraphs, we could use it. On a press-release, writers have two paragraphs for their audience to absorb ideas it typically took years of intense study and investigation to work with. On top of that, the most important purpose of a press release is to generate press (and therefore funding). Spin, whether intended or not, is tempting, and easy miss when it happens.

Did we do a good job editing these press releases? Did we, ironically, overstate the strength of our own findings? Did we mislead, whether intentionally or not? We would like to believe that we did our best to be accurate and honest, but we are rarely the best judges of ourselves.

Getting (very) meta

Noah Haber

What happens when the authors of a meta-science study involving scientific translation on media and social media evaluates the translation of its own study?

The CLAIMS study is, in part, about the intersections and interactions between academia, media, and social media. We like experimenting with new ideas and new approaches to tackling the spread of misinformation in health research across the whole pathway from research generation to consumption. With that in mind, we’re getting (very) meta on this site, and playing with ideas on how our own study is received and interpreted.

  1. A public explainer of the CLAIMS study
    Traditionally, academic authors’ responsibility for communicating research findings stops at the point at which the paper is published in an academic journal. After that point, it’s left to other academics, press release writers, journalists, bloggers, and sharers. Translation into more popular news and social media formats leaves opportunities for spin and misunderstanding. We wanted to make sure that people discussing our work understand it well by putting it into everyday language that we designed and believe to be the an accurate translation.
  2. Suggestions on how to (and how NOT to) discuss on social media
    Crafting a tweet is hard in the best of circumstances, and extra hard when there is important nuance to the study. In our main page, we give some suggested headlines that are reasonably accurate. More importantly, we give tweets we expect people might be tempted to write that are NOT accurate, and explain why.
  3. News and social media tracking and evaluation
    Given that we have provided #1 and #2 for anyone interested in writing about the study, we can do something even more interesting: keep track of who writes about and cites our work, and evaluate it. We have provided a lot of resources for those who are interested. We’re also reaching out to media outlets to help make sure discussion of the work is accurate. We don’t know who might be interested in writing about the study, but we are very curious to see what they get right and wrong if they do. The plan for now is to simply search for academic papers, blogs, and news media about and/or citing our study, keep a copy of it, and see what we think. If there are a lot of articles, we may do something more formal and systematically evaluate those articles for potential misinformation. This is not intended to be a a research-grade study, but it may help inform some future hypotheses and give some fodder for interesting discussion.

Will major news outlets write about our study? What aspects of the study are of greatest interest? What do people get right, and more importantly, what do people get wrong? I honestly have no idea, and that’s my favorite kind of hypothesis.

Welcome to MetaCausal

Noah Haber
MetaCausal is dedicated to the relationships between science, statistics, and people. We feature research, discussion, news, and everything in between, starting with our own published work. We plan on growing from a small scale blog to something quite a bit bigger, and we’re excited to be scaling up very soon.

This is also the home of our kickoff project: the CLAIMS study. The CLAIMS study looks at the strength of causal inference in studies and articles shared in social media. Your news feed is probably filled with articles saying things like “study finds chocolate linked to cancer.” We wanted to know if those studies shared on social media actually find that changing chocolate consumption actually caused/prevented cancer,  or were their methods not able to distinguish correlation from causation.

The CLAIMS team identified the most popular media articles about academic studies assessing the association between any exposure and health outcome, and systematically reviewed them and the media articles about them for causal strength and language. We found that the studies most likely to be seen by social media consumers in 2015 were very unlikely to show causation, and were slightly overstated. The media articles most likely to be read about them were very likely to be overstated and inaccurately described. This study is accepted for publication in PLoS One, pending final publication.

This site hosts the full dataset, code, and methods for full transparency. This site is in a holding pattern while we wait for official publication of the CLAIMS study. Once that happens, we’re going to be spending a lot of time thinking and discussing the state of science on this site, based in part from the findings of the CLAIMS study.

We’ll post public explainers about science and stats. We’ll do some oddball public experiments. We’ll post our own public versions of the studies we’ve been making. We’ll have opinions and analysis on a whole range of topics from technical science to social media, reports on our own studies, and everything in between.