Reading a breathless account of an amazing new medical treatment, lured in by an exciting headline, only to discover a few paragraphs in that the findings are in rodents, can at best be annoying, and at worst raise false hopes for patients and their families. A new study, long overdue, pins down one source of this common error of omission: leaving out mice in the titles of technical articles.
A chain reaction of mangled communication is at fault.
Leaving Out the Rodents
Missing mice happen at several points in the medical news trajectory.
Failure to mention that an experiment was done on non-human animals in a technical article's title can reverberate as a news release and then echo in media reports, tweets, and memes. Or, the headline of a news release or its content can ignore the mice, even if the journal article mentions them.
In yet another scenario, the reporter can omit the rodents. Journalists are sometimes so rushed with deadlines that they may modify a news release rather than take the time to read the technical report behind it that may indeed credit the mice and rats. Another source of the error: editors who write the headlines of news articles, omitting the mention (writers rarely write the headlines).
Many science journalists get ideas from the dozens of news releases posted daily at Eurekalert.org, from institutions and companies all over the world. And some releases only mention mice a few paragraphs in – or not at all.
Hype resulting from mouse-deficient headlines has bugged me for a long time. When I edit abstracts for a medical journal, one of my regular gigs, I alert authors who leave out model organisms from article titles.
So I was happy to read, ironically in a news release, that Marcia Triunfol at Humane Society International in Washington, DC and Fabio Gouveia at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro have investigated whether mention of mice in news release headlines dampens media coverage.
The findings described in "What's not in the news headlines or titles of Alzheimer disease articles? #InMice," published in PLOS Biology, aren't surprising: when a scientific paper's title omits the rodent connection, journalists reporting on the paper tend to do the same. And reporters are more likely to cover papers without mice in their titles.
To continue reading, go to DNA Science, where this post was first published.