You may recall that a week ago there were a gazillion headlines proclaiming that even low levels of caffeine had been confirmed to cause miscarriage. A typical headline was something along the lines of “Caffeine doubles miscarriage risk.”
As a health information professional and a women’s health professor, I was frantic to track down the article from which all this hullabaloo came. Many of the articles mention the name of a study author, and several state that the study was conducted by Kaiser Permanente. It doesn’t take a librarian long to Google Kaiser’s press release, dated January 21, nor to deduce that (as usual) the reporters had just taken the press release at face value without pursuing the actual study.
Knowing that telling women, particularly new mothers, what they should and shouldn’t do is a favourite pastime of US medicine, I was naturally skeptical that the actual study could speak as definitively as the press release/news coverage regarding the risks of caffeine in pregnancy. The press release as well as many of the news articles all stated that the findings had been published in “the current online issue” of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Since my home institution has a subscription to said journal, I expected to be able to pull it immediately.
I searched the journal by title, by author, article-by-article in the current issue, in the online exclusives/preprints…nothing. I waited a day and tried again. After fully striking out in my search, I consulted two other librarians, both of whom were equally confounded. This was validating in terms of my search skills but not so helpful in terms of being able to determine whether the headlines were regarding a groundbreaking study or just the usual overblown hooey.
Finally, one of my favourite bloggers, Sandy Szwarc, BSN, RN, CCP, who writes the Junkfood Science blog, wrote about this problem. It turns out this was probably some really nasty marketing on the part of somebody. The press release was sent out ahead of the actual publication of the article (but the language in the PR makes it sounds like it has been published), so no scientists or doctors could critique or refute the study or related over-inflated headlines.
I am not aware of this type of thing being common practice – issuing a misleading press release before the actual article is available to subscribers – but I guess it’s good to be aware that it happens. This is the type of headline I would expect to get reference questions about. This is also the kind of fearmongering that sticks with people – and it’s aimed right at people scared of miscarrying or hoping to have some sort of control to avoid a miscarriage.
The typical news consumer has neither the time for nor the access to read most of the medical studies reported upon in their local news outlet. Even if they had access, if the study was published OA for example, most people don’t have the training to identify all the forms of study bias, lousy statistical methods, etc. Denying health consumers any chance at balanced or accurate health reporting by a) issuing a press release ahead of the actual study (Kaiser Permanente) and b) jumping at a chance at an early scoop over an accurate article (media outlets) is unacceptable.
Here’s Szwarc’s article – containing context for the study and an explanation of common pitfalls in this type of research, as well as analysis of what went down with this particular article (in terms of spin and actual science in the article), “It’s not nice to scare the mothers: the latest miscarriage scare.”
The AJOG article, “Maternal caffeine consumption during pregnancy and the risk of miscarriage: a prospective cohort study,” appears to be freely available for the time being, at least, here. AJOG says it is to be published in the March 2008 issue of the journal.