Spin is usually defined as reporting practices that distort the interpretation of results and mislead readers to view them in a more favourable light.

A research report usually starts with a clear research question and ends with a conclusion empirically supported by the studied data. Speculations and hypotheses can be presented, but unsubstantiated claims must not be made. In practice, however, many reports have vague aims, the authors’ conclusions are ambiguous, and the validity of the findings is unclear. Some of such shortcomings may reflect insufficient education and experience, but some authors exaggerate the importance of presented findings, their empirical support, and their level of evidence. For example, randomised trials represent a higher level of evidence than observational studies. Despite claiming to report randomised trials, some publications present observational studies of patients who earlier participated in randomised trials.

Deliberate spin is, unfortunately, not an uncommon phenomenon. One systematic review shows that spin occurred in about half of all press releases from randomised trials (Yavchitz et al. Misrepresentation of Randomized Controlled Trials in Press Releases and News Coverage: A Cohort Study. PLoS Med 2012;9:e1001308) and another one (Chiu et al. ‘Spin’ in published biomedical literature: A methodological systematic review. PLoS Biol 2017;15:e2002173) found similar degrees of in spin prevalence among different types of medical studies.

Editors and scientific journals are vital in maintaining high scientific quality and counteracting spin. However, many journals are commercial entities or have other conflicts of interest. One climate researcher, Patrick Brown, explains how he got a paper accepted in Nature by “sticking to a narrative the editors liked”.  Questions about whether you can believe what you read in scientific journals are highly relevant. Understanding the causes and expressions of spin and being able to identify spin is paramount for readers and reviewers of scientific literature.

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Jonas Ranstam