FAKE news has become a catch-all term for news stories that people (quite often a certain US President) prefer to dismiss on the grounds that it does not suit their agenda or worldview.

The intentional spread of misinformation is a genuine and growing problem, however, and one that has not left medical science untouched.

Professor Chris Oliver, an expert in medical data has told the Herald that scientific journals are contributing to the spread of “fake news” by hiding or misreporting results from health studies.

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Professor Oliver, an associate research fellow at Edinburgh Napier University, analysed how social media contributes to the polarisation of health topics and the behaviour of medical journals whose studies provide the basis for a lot of health news.

He said: “The general conclusion was that there is fake news surrounding medical journalism and we hadn’t realised that before. We thought medicine was quite clean of fake news but it isn't.

“A lot of it is about medical journals and the way that they behave - creating pieces of information to inflate their own profiles.

“Things from medical studies get hidden away or they’re not necessarily get represented fully. Negative results from studies aren’t shown when perhaps they should be.

“Just because you do an experiment and you don’t get a good result doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report it.

“But a lot of places wouldn’t report it because it wouldn’t be good for their business.”

Prof Oliver’s comments are timely, echoing the findings of a study published in the British Medical Journal in August found evidence of ‘spin’ in more than half abstracts printed by top psychiatry and psychology journals.

Abstracts summarise the findings of clinical trials.

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It means that study authors were found to have exaggerated the clinical significance of a particular treatment without the statistics to back it up.

This type of spin was also found in 15 per cent of the journals’ results and conclusions sections.

The study examined 116 randomised control trials and the peer-reviewed papers about them - supposedly the gold standard for scientific research.

However, it revealed that “15% of peer-reviewers asked authors to add spin to their manuscripts”.

The BMJ study noted that “positive results are more likely to be published”, but that there could be direct consequences for what patients are prescribed.

It said: “Researchers have an ethical obligation to honestly and clearly report the results of their research. Adding spin to the abstract of an article may mislead physicians who are attempting to draw conclusions about a treatment for patients.

“Most physicians read only the article abstract the majority of the time.”

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The phenomenon was previously highlighted in relation to antidepressants in a famous Stanford University study, which found that 22 out of 36 drug trials with negative results were never published, while 11 were ‘spun’ to make negative results appear positive.

In comparison 37 out of 38 with favourable results were published.

In the past there have been claims of inherent bias in studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry. However, the BMJ study stressed that it found “no association between spin and industry-funded studies”.

The counter-productive problem of ‘publish or perish’ may be partly to blame.

Researchers know that future funding will depend on how 'productive' they are perceived to be, a measure gauged by how many papers they’ve had published.

Bu if only positive results are deemed worthy of publication (a study showing a cancer drug works being considered more marketable than an equally valid one showing no effect), then scientists come under unfair pressure to skew their results.

Even the composition of clinical studies themselves can be misleading, however. On average, drug trial participants are younger, wealthier and better educated than the real-world cancer population.

The difference could be so stark, according the conclusion of oncologists in a 2016 US analysis, “as to transform a cancer drug with marginal effect [in trials] into an ineffective drug” in practice.

Prof Oliver, a retired NHS Lothian orthopaedic trauma surgeon who is also the King James IV Professor for the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh, has also looked at how Twitter influences health news. He examined how thousands of tweets were shared and who by during given weeks in 2017.

Among the findings was “highly polarised new reporting of the same story” in relation to the discredited claim that £350 million would be available to the NHS post-Brexit.

On Twitter, the team identified 506 tweets for an article from left-leaning Independent reporting that the claim was bogus compared to 135 for a Daily Mail version that the Brexit “dividend does exist”.

Prof Oliver said: “This is a clear example of a ‘filter bubble’, where individuals’ views are highly polarised, presumably on both social media and in the real world, with chosen media reinforcing already deeply ingrained views.”