Of all the sciences, biomedical research attracts the most attention from the press. This media interest undoubtedly has its benefits. By explaining the results of research in the media, scientists and their institutes are able to justify the spending of public and private funds. Favourable reporting can also speed up fund raising and, if it is sustained, give research institutes a reputation for solidity and expertise. In addition, the media are so influential in society that researchers’ personal careers sometimes benefit from favourable media attention. These benefits are countered by risks that do not always make it easy to communicate the message in an undiluted form. The media increasingly represent an arena in which commercial interests play a major role.
When they are trying to attract publicity, researchers should realize that commercial or political interested parties are almost always dependent on the researchers’ cooperation. This is what gives them the opportunity to communicate research findings independently and with integrity.
Major parties in the publicity surrounding scientific research are:
Pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies, suppliers of biomedical equipment and any other parties in the private sector (often operating internationally) utilize the results of scientific research in their marketing – and hence their commercial objectives. They try to generate and steer positive publicity for their products by, for example, approaching researchers and asking for their cooperation. This can include a variety of forms: from inviting researchers to collaborate on audio-visual productions of the company to asking for quotes for a press release.
The paradox is that scientists’ contribution is requested because of their academic independence, while at the same time this independence could become compromised by their involvement.
The public sector at the local, national and European level 'steers' the publicity about scientific research in the direction of political goals or policy principles that are not always explicitly formulated. Research results that are not consistent with those goals, can then be marginalized or left out.
Government funds and charitable funds depend on political and societal support. This means that they have to substantiate their raison d’être. The results of research they sponsor are also used for their own profiling and branding.
Patients’ organizations often rely on financial support from commercial companies that supply drugs or medical devices for the patient group. This puts the independence of such a patient organization at risk. Researchers who attract publicity together with patients or patients’ organizations should keep this in mind.
The media themselves are not devoid of commercial self-interest. News is surprisingly often related to acquisition and the possibility to earn advertising revenue. The linking of advertising space and editorial coverage is common. Even such reputable scientific journals as The Lancet, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine and Nature bombard the media with weekly press releases in order to uphold their authority.