A study of media coverage of 623 scientific papers on Alzheimer’s disease research conducted in mice reveals that the digital news media are more likely to write a story about alleged breakthroughs or medical research findings if research authors omit mice from their studies’ titles. On the other hand, papers that acknowledge mice in their titles result in limited media coverage.
In addition, the study titled “What’s not in the news headlines or titles of Alzheimer disease articles? #Inmice”conducted by Dr Marcia Triunfol of Humane Society International and Dr Fabio Gouveia of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil, and published in PLoS Biology, found that the resulting media coverage generated by papers with “missing mice” titles is also more likely to omit mice from their headlines.
This is of concern because scientific findings obtained from animal experiments should be reported with caution due to their limited relevance to human health. The biology and physiology of mice and other animals differ significantly to that of humans, such that research results obtained in animals often fail to be replicated in people. Despite that, the scientific value of articles downplaying that they relied on animal models is actually inflated by their disproportionate media exposure, raising concerns that the public and patients are being misled.
Dr Triunfol, one of the study’s authors and Humane Society International’s scientific advisor, says: “There are around 200 animal models to study Alzheimer’s disease, and yet the vast majority of potential treatments discovered through experiments on mice are ineffective when tested in humans. Despite this significant flaw in the animal models, we show that articles glossing over the fact that the results were obtained using animals are given increased visibility and therefore implied credibility by the media. The reporting of animal research needs to be addressed with far greater caution and more prominent disclaimers in mainstream media to ensure the public understands that the results of animal experiments may have little to no relevance to human patients.”
The study’s authors looked at research published in 2018 and 2019 in open-access journals and indexed in PubMed. Of the 623 papers reviewed, 405 added ‘mice’ in the titles but 218 made no mention of mice, despite the fact that in both groups mice were the main research subjects. Using Altmetric Explorer, a web-based platform that allows users to browse a report on digital attention data for research papers, Dr. Gouveia reported that he and Dr. Triunfol found that “when authors omit mice from the paper’s title, writers of news stories reporting on these papers tend to follow suit. What we see is that in most cases their headlines do not mention mice either.”
The study also shows that papers that omit mice from their titles generate twice the number of social media tweets compared to papers that do mention mice in the title (18.8 tweets against 9.7 tweets, on average).
Some examples of media stories based on mouse results but without mentioning mice in their headlines are “Common nutrient supplementation may hold the answers to combating Alzheimer’s disease“, “How flashing lights could treat Alzheimer’s disease” and “How Exercise Might ‘Clean’ the Alzheimer’s Brain,” among many others. Such headlines risk giving the impression that these findings apply to people with Alzheimer’s disease, when in reality they apply to mice only, until/unless new scientific evidence is produced. The problem of “missing mice” in the media is so common, that in March 2019 @justsaysinmice burst onto Twitter (now with 70.5K followers) with the aim of drawing attention to headline news stories in which mice — the subject of the breakthrough — go unacknowledged.
Drs Triunfol and Gouveia call for implementation of editorial policies, such as the ARRIVE guidelines (an internationally accepted checklist of recommendations to improve the reporting of research involving animals), to require that titles of experimental articles identify the species and/or tissue sources used in the research, if not derived from humans. By improving the quality of scientific reporting, we can improve the accuracy of science media news and encourage greater transparency concerning the true state of affairs in Alzheimer’s disease research.