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Research is like a bad game of ‘telephone’: mitigating the information breakdown from clinicians and researchers to the general public
  1. Zachary Y Kerr1,
  2. Avinash Chandran1,
  3. Scott L Zuckerman2,
  4. Lee Stoner1,
  5. Gary S Solomon2
  1. 1 Exercise and Sport Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
  2. 2 Neurological Surgery, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Zachary Y Kerr, Exercise and Sport Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-8700, USA; zkerr{at}

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In the contemporary media environment, it is impossible for researchers to control how their research is disseminated and interpreted. Researchers’ findings can become lost in translation, particularly when deemed ‘newsworthy’. This information breakdown reminds us of the children’s game, ‘telephone’. In telephone, an individual whispers a message to another individual, which is repeated to another and so on. When the final individual receives the message, it has likely changed substantially.

Breakdown in the ‘research telephone’

Our model of the information breakdown within the research telephone focuses on two factors—the messenger and the receiver (figure 1). The messenger is the researcher who conducts the study, submits the manuscript for review and disseminates the findings through traditional and social media. The receivers of messaging may further propagate the findings, while making their own inferences, thereby crafting slightly revised messages. Unlike the game of telephone, the research telephone does not follow a single path; intermediate pathways can be bypassed (eg, disseminating findings prior to publication). When the scientific method is misrepresented or not comprehensively disclosed, subtle yet important misinterpretations occur, or the research message may be deliberately skewed to maximise ‘clicks’. When scientific writers fail to …

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  • Contributors ZYK had the original idea for the article, led the design and drafting of the manuscript and is the guarantor. AC, SLZ, LS and GSS assisted in the design, drafting and critical review of the manuscript. All authors approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests. GSS has received honoraria and expense reimbursements from government, professional and scientific organisations for presenting research relating to sport-related concussion at meetings, scientific conferences and symposiums. He is the Senior Medical Advisor for the National Football League Department of Health and Safety.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.