Addiction researchers’ early trumpeting can leave foul stench

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Keith Humphreys is given prominence in the journal Addiction to make powerful points about the harm that can be done when scientists are too eager to share new findings. Too eager means bypassing the peer review process that can highlight research shortcomings and often limits the potential for misunderstandings. He points to the recent headlines which suggested that cocaine was no more addictive than Oreo biscuits (cookies across the Atlantic).

A few days after the sensational story began spreading on internet news sites and blogs, other scientists were contacted by responsible journalists for their views of the study. This quickly made apparent that the research in question came from a press release arising from an undergraduate student project that had not been published or even presented at a conference. The contents of the press release were passed along uncritically by many news outlets. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and the like did the rest.

There was a response, but too late:

Then a round of news stories and commentaries appeared which noted serious flaws in the research and questioned its astonishing conclusions. Following the backlash, the college news service changed the sensational title of the press release and added a new line to its text: ‘The results are preliminary and subject to further scientific review’. Indeed, but at that point the closing of the stable door was but a distant sound in the ears of the horse that had galloped away.

Humphreys argues that this kind of premature reporting damages the reputation of scientists and the authenticity of good research. It also makes the science vulnerable to malign influence and misuse.

What might be done to dissuade less scrupulous scientists from trumpeting their version of the research findings prior to publication? Humphreys suggests journal editors could simply refuse to publish when researchers behave badly and go public prior to peer review and publication. That would leave the foul stench of self-trumpeting firmly in the orbit of the researchers and might prevent future transgressions.

    4 Responses to "Addiction researchers’ early trumpeting can leave foul stench"
    1. Good point. The Oreo-cocaine study bothered me from the start. Though I believe that sugar is addictive, the addictiveness of any substance is hard to measure. How addicted is addicted? Is it a percentage of regular users, or a percentage of lifetime users, that we’re finding? A majority of caffeine users become addicted, whereas only a large minority (depending on the study) of cocaine users get hooked. But when someone gets addicted to sugar, it’s probably usually after daily consumption for years. It takes just days or weeks to get addicted to cocaine. If I were designing a standard index of addictiveness, I would take into account 1. what percentage of people who consume the substance two or three times get addicted, 2. how long it takes to get addicted, 3. how many times the average addict tries to quit, 4. what percentage are using to the day they die and never get free of it and 5. what percentage continue using despite known serious consequences, with the variables of age at first use, reason for first use, and medical supervision factored in. Of course, that would be a prohibitively expensive, cumbersome project, so we’re stuck with partial data, which is what the grain of salt is for.

      • It sounds like I changed the subject for a minute when I mentioned caffeine, then went back to talking about sugar. I would like to clarify. It takes years to get addicted to sugar, and probably also to caffeine. Around 50-55 % of caffeine users get addicted. I have no idea what the figures are for sugar addiction, since it’s still undefined. But even if it does turn out to be 55%, that’s still after daily consumption for years, not a week or two. That was my point.

        • djmac says:

          Sugar will release dopamine (important for survival, associated with pleasure) and repeated dopamine use is likely to be reinforcing. There will almost certainly be genetic predisposition in some and less in others. We don’t all necessarily start out from the same baseline and perhaps there is a chronicity of exposure that eventually tips the addictive behaviour.

      • djmac says:

        Good points. I guess most researchers don’t want to mislead, but neither do they want their research to be consigned to the unopened dusty pages of a journal. Getting a headline or press release with a hook must seem like a good idea to attract people to the research. I wonder if the hook can be intriguing but also honest.

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