In an article published in Nature Medicine in December 2022, Professor Carl Bergstrom highlights the responsibility of authors to “provide clear and accurate information to society”. He further emphasises the need to “combat misinformation and disinformation”. This article comes at an appropriate time; although arguably medical misinformation predates contemporary anti-science sentiments, Professor Peter Hotez suggests that recent movements have become a “major killing force globally”.  

In recent experience, the importance of science communication has become devastatingly clear. Alas, due to the strength and stay of anti-vaccine rhetoric, we witnessed what Professor Hotez describes as “the greatest self-immolation in American history”. So, what can researchers and authors do in the future to protect against misinterpretation or wilful misconstruction? 

Twitter and torrents of trolls 

Now more than ever, with options for anonymity and rapidity, keyboard warriors take to social media platforms to disseminate their opinions and perceived facts. Helpfully, many members of the scientific community and health leaders are valiantly battling it out in the virtual trenches. However, when faced with direct threats, now not only facilitated but encouraged by a certain billionaire not worth our time, the task must get tough.  

Thus, the publication these guidelines by Professor Bergstrom may come as a welcome reminder of the collective responsibility of medical research. On the other hand, it may add fuel to the burnout fire. So, as we explore them, we encourage our community to offer ideas, responses, or encouragement to each other.  

Professor Bergstrom 

Helpfully, Professor Bergstrom has a neat biography on his website that details the “unifying theme” through his work: the “concept of information”. His exploration of this theme straddles biology and the philosophy and sociology of science. More recently, his interests have expanded to include the “spread of disinformation on social networks”.  

In his article, Professor Bergstrom suggests that our experience with COVID-19, from vaccination to hydroxychloroquine, have become deeply “politicised”. This results in the “distortion of medical research” and has sadly has a demonstrable consequence in terms of human life

“When biomedical researchers publish, we are not merely sharing our work with colleagues; we are broadcasting it into a broader media and social media ecosystem in which our findings can be misused, misapplied, misinterpreted, and misrepresented in the service of any number of causes.”  

How, then, can authors provide impenetrable yet accessible information, be receptive to criticism and robust under scrutiny, and ultimately serve a community that has little capacity for scientific detail? Let’s see what Professor Bergstrom has to say.  

“Many of us went into this profession to advance human health and wellbeing, but misinformation has the power to turn our own research against us.”  

The 8 suggestions: 
Be aware of the information landscape into which you are releasing your work.  
  • Consider the debates and controversies to which your work might pertain, the special interests that might pick up on your findings and spin them, and the biases that your findings might reinforce. 
  • Be deliberate in framing and situating your work in this context. 
Avoid creating hype around your work or making tenuous claims about its significance. 
  • Research in animal models should not be accompanied by incautious clams about human applications. 
  • In the absence of causal information, correlations should not be taken to suggest causation. 
  • Modelling should never overstate its scope.  
  • Be meticulous in specifying sources of uncertainty. 
Recognise that data visualisations are widely shared on social media and that they can be used for good or ill. 
  • Make sure that your figures stand on their own, separated from your manuscript.  
  • If you are seeking public impact, consider whether non-specialists would be prone to misinterpreting the figures. 
Where specific abuses of your findings are likely, take steps to head these off. 
If you intend to post a preprint, understand how preprints are received by the public and the media. Biomedical papers often have immediate public relevance and preprint servers have been invaluable for rapid communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the press and public do not necessarily understand their provisional nature.  
  • If your study has health implications, you face an extra duty of care.
  • If you are not ready to see your manuscript appear in a leading medical journal, you should think carefully before posting it as a preprint.  
Take direct responsibility for any press release that your institution issues about your work.  
  • Exaggerated university press releases are a major driver of inaccurate health reporting.
  • Your press office is charged with promoting your work as broadly as possible and will welcome your help in walking the line between enthusiasm and exaggeration.  
Interact responsibly with traditional media.  
  • Understand the most common sources of error in the reporting of medical research and contextualise your work to the press with the same diligence that you use in a scientific paper.  
Consider engaging on social media. 
  • Public engagement on social media is not for everyone, but it can be a powerful tool to combat misinformation.  
  • When a paper is misrepresented online, a correction from the authors themselves can be a powerful remedy. 
  • At the same time, be realistic and recall Brandolini’s asymmetry principle: “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it”.  
  • In dealing with misinformation, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  
A blessing and a curse 

Professor Bergstrom concludes with the reflection that in biomedical science, community members are “blessed and cursed with societal relevance and public interest”.  

“We have an obligation to provide clear and accurate information to a society hungry for such information, while curtailing inadvertent misinformation and stymying deliberate disinformation about our work. This is not an easy charge, but with care, effort and practice we can do a great deal to ensure that our scientific contributions are reflected fairly and accurately in the public discourse.” 

Here at VaccineNation we hope to contribute to the dissemination of information and, where appropriate, the correction and discrediting of misinformation. With the support of our community, we will continue to attempt this, reporting on news and offering insights into vaccines and vaccination. To join our conversations, subscribe to our newsletters, get in touch, or get your tickets to our next Congress in Washington 2023.