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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Be Wary of "Studies" - The Incredible Tale of Irresponsible Chocolate Milk Research at the University of Maryland

From Vox Science and Health

By Julia Belluz
January 16, 2016

Academic press offices are known to overhype their own research. But the University of Maryland recently took this to appalling new heights, trumpeting an incredibly shoddy study on chocolate milk and concussions that happened to benefit a corporate partner.


It's a cautionary tale of just how badly science can go awry as universities increasingly partner with corporations to conduct research.

The story started when the University of Maryland issued a press release about a new study on the effects of a single brand of chocolate milk on cognitive and motor skill tests in high school athletes.

The scientists had found that drinking the milk appeared to improve the kids' test scores and reduce concussion-related symptoms.

The first problem here is that the research itself is breathtakingly suspect. There was no comparison group or treatment in the study. The scientists didn't even test another brand of chocolate milk. They only looked at Fifth Quarter Fresh, which its maker claims comes from "super, natural cows."

It's unclear how this cow is different from a
"super, natural cow." (Smereka/Shutterstock)

Worse, the scientists didn't even bother to publish their results before publicizing them, according to an excellent probe of the release by Health News Review, where Andrew Holtz broke the story.

Despite all these red flags, the university touted the study:

"Fifth Quarter Fresh, a new, high-protein chocolate milk," the release reads, "helped high school football players improve their cognitive and motor function over the course of a season, even after experiencing concussions."

The milk manufacturer also featured the "findings" on its own website.

From the Fifth Quarter Fresh website.

This is incredibly irresponsible. And it appeared to sway people. The superintendent of Washington County Public Schools was quoted by the university as saying, "Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh [chocolate milk] to all of our athletes."

So why would a supposedly serious university trumpet such flawed research? 

The more I looked into it, the more disturbing the story got.

Crystal Brown, a communications representative from the University of Maryland, explained that the chocolate milk study was funded through the Maryland Industrial Partnerships program, a collaboration between the university and "commercial entities for economic development across the state of Maryland." The idea behind the program is to foster job creation through industry and university collaborations, according to Brown.

As it turns out, the maker of Fifth Quarter Fresh chocolate milk, which comes from a dairy cooperative in Hagerstown, Maryland, funded 10% of the study, and the university funded the rest.

So here we have a milk manufacturer working in partnership with the University of Maryland to fund a sloppy study, and the university then blasts the results, persuading schools and the press that this milk works wonders on students' brains.

It's everything wrong with modern-day science-by-press-release in one anecdote.

(Note: I reached out to study author Jae Kun Shim, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health, to ask about the story behind the dubious study, and got no reply. Shim seems to have gone silent and hasn't been responding to other media outlets, either.)

A Push to Commercialize University Research

The University of Maryland is not unique here. There's been a push to commercialize university research, and it's happening across North America.

As this 2015 review in BioMed Central, describes, "The growing emphasis on commercialization of university research may be exerting unfounded pressure on researchers and misrepresenting scientific research realities, prospects and outcomes."

The authors of that review explain that the industry-academia partnerships are currently happening in a sort of a free-for-all environment, where the rules of engagement are often unclear or unwritten. They call for a serious review of the policies. In the meantime, researchers have been finding that industry involvement can bias results and shape the direction of research.

I think it's pretty safe to guess that University of Maryland scientists may not have chosen to study the very narrow question of how one brand of milk affects concussions had it not been for the brand's involvement in the science.

Another Problem: Academic Press Offices Often Overhype Bad Research

The corporate partnership gone awry wasn't the only abuse of science here. The unwarranted hype from the University of Maryland's press office was another. And this isn't an isolated problem.

Academic press shops have an appalling track record when it comes to overhyping institutional science. In the rush to get the word out about their new work, they oversell, mislead, or otherwise exaggerate the results of research. And that very same framing trickles down to the public.

One study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that releases from these offices often overhype the findings of their scientists — and then journalists play along uncritically, parroting whatever showed up in their inbox that day.

"The odds of exaggerated news were substantially higher when the press releases issued by the academic institutions were exaggerated," the study authors conclude.

"Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations."

In 2009, researchers at Dartmouth looked at a random selection of press releases from 10 medical centers in the United States. They concluded, "Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations."

At the University of Maryland, the vice president of research has stepped in to do aninstitutional review about the chocolate milk study. The university press office told me that publicizing results of still-unpublished research is "not customary."

Even so, this is not only embarrassing for the university, but should also be a warning about what can happen when business interests encroach on university campuses without well-defined boundaries.

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