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‘Of Mice and Men’ and Bad Reporting of Science

It’s easy to get caught up in splashy health news reporting that sounds like a miraculous medical breakthrough. Enticing headlines such as “Compounds Found in Carrots Reverse Alzheimer’s-Like Symptoms” or “Exercise during Pregnancy Protects Children from Obesity” can raise false hope in patients when science reporters and press releases fail to delineate animal from human studies in the headline. Even worse, it might be necessary to read half the article before discovering it is not reporting a human study. Although animal studies often do show great promise, a drug or therapy that works effectively in mice, for example, can often fail to work in humans.

Recently, James Heathers, a postdoctoral researcher at Boston’s Northeastern University, took issue with this health news reporting tactic and chose to confront the hype with humor by creating a Twitter account @justsaysinmice. Simply by adding the phrase ‘in mice’ to the sensationalized health headline, these tweets are an attempt to counter bad reporting one news story at a time. Since it began in April, @justsaysinmice has gained 59,000 followers.

For those of us without a trendy Twitter idea who want to learn and use best practices for communicating biomedical research for public consumption, turn to HSLS resources. To locate books, begin with a PittCat ‘subject heading browse’ using the phrase communication in medicine. You can also browse journals that publish on this topic, such as Journal of Health Communication and Health Communication, or contact a librarian by phone, chat, or e-mail through Ask a Librarian. Additional helpful resources are available online from the NIH including a Checklist for Communicating Science and Health Research to the Public, and the use of plain language for clear communication.

~Rebecca Abromitis