How one scientist is calling out misleading science stories

By Diana Duong

The most popular medical stories often come from the least credible sources, according to a 2018 review of social media shares. Increasingly, healthcare professionals are using social media to call out these inaccurate reports.

From an oncologist criticizing the Daily Mail for attributing a woman’s cancer remission to lifestyle changes to an emergency medicine physician calling out the Cleveland Clinic for a story about “7 potential cancer fighters found in foods,” these articles are just some in a long line of health news that carelessly extrapolate from limited studies.

Dr. James Heathers, the creator of @justsaysinmice and a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston, says many stories about animal studies fail to mention the study focus until several paragraphs deep within the story. This can be fixed by adding “in mice” to the end of a headline.

In just one week, @justsaysinmice has already accrued more than 46,000 followers, with notable science writers like Carl Zimmer and Dr. Ben Goldacre praising the concept of tweeting out health studies with the simple comment “IN MICE” where applicable.

“I started the account before I had my first cup of coffee and I didn’t think very much of it,” Heathers told Figure 1. “I just thought it would be funny because it’s a dad joke and it’s totally predictable.”

But Heathers is serious about the impact of inaccurate reporting on scientific research. One response that resonated with him was a tweet from a mother of a child with a chronic illness. She told him that she frequently receives excited, well-meaning emails from friends and family about a “cure” for her child’s illness. It always turns out to be a story about a study done in mice.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” says Heathers. “If I were a patient who had Alzheimer’s, I would be really annoyed.”

He says it’s also harmful for scientists and their work. “Scientists read the news, too,” he says. “Reporting that way isn’t fair to the people it affects or the scientists. It doesn’t make it better when you misrepresent real work that takes a long time and is expensive to do. It doesn’t have to be reduced to a “cure” to get attention and you don’t have to boil out all the details to make it interesting.”

Heathers himself has PubMed and Google Alerts set on several topics and spends much of his free time reading ScienceAlert and EurekAlert press releases. Ultimately, he just wants the reporting to reflect what’s actually happening in the labs.

“I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy or that it’s wrong,” he says “It’s just not right enough.”