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Talking Headlines with Debbie Kennett

by on 2019/01/10

Debbie is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. She writes about DNA testing for Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine and Family Tree Magazine, and has written two books for the History Press: DNA and Social Networking and The Surnames Handbook. She promotes the responsible use of DNA testing as a tool for genealogical research. To this end she has helped to create educational resources for the genetic genealogy community, notably by co-founding the ISOGG Wiki. Her blog Cruwys News features articles on DNA, family history and surname research. She has been interviewed about genetic ancestry testing for BBC Radio 4, appearing on You and Yours and The Business of Genetic Ancestry. She is often asked to comment on DNA stories for the UK and US press and has been cited in numerous publications including The Times, The Observer, The Atlantic, Bloomberg News and The Washington Post. Debbie can be found on Twitter commenting and tweeting about anything to do with DNA.

Hi Debbie, you just published a paper on BritainsDNA; can you summarise what the controversy is about?

BritainsDNA was a genetic ancestry testing company that was very active in the UK from November 2011 to July 2017 when they eventually ceased trading. The company acquired a bad reputation because of their misleading, unscientific and exaggerated marketing claims. More worryingly, they tried to stifle academic debate by sending a threatening legal letter to my two colleagues, Professor Mark Thomas and Professor David Balding, after they tried to challenge the company’s claims in a private e-mail exchange. At great personal risk, they decided to ignore the threats to speak out publicly.

How did you get involved in this story?

I was contacted in 2012 by a number of disgruntled customers of ScotlandsDNA, the first website set up under the BritainsDNA banner. These people had paid a lot of money for their test and didn’t understand their results or know what to do with them. I was also becoming increasingly concerned about the misleading media coverage which I felt was serving to give the whole industry a bad name. In 2013 I met David Balding and Mark Thomas at Who Do You Think You Are? Live, which was then the big family history show in the UK. Alistair Moffat, the Managing Director of BritainsDNA, gave a talk at the show which we all attended. David and Mark shared my concerns about the company and we ended up joining forces to try and fight the misleading claims.

Can you tell us about the role that the media played in the rise of BritainsDNA?

Rather than regular marketing and advertising, BritainsDNA tried to promote their DNA tests by getting editorial coverage in national media. Much of the coverage featured celebrities having their DNA tested at BritainsDNA. Genetic data collected from customers led to rather sensational claims that were never published as peer-reviewed articles. These were easily picked-up by the media and headlines included an ancient genocide in Ireland, the imminent extinction of people with ginger hair or the case of a Scottish lecturer found to be the grandfather of everyone in Britain. Another high profile story covered the Indian ancestry of the Royal Family.

BritainsDNA has now ceased all activities, but do you feel it left persisting consequences?

BritainsDNA left a legacy of bad science and we are still feeling the effects today. The exaggerated claims misled the public about what to expect from a DNA test. Some of their stories were so ludicrous that they undermined the efforts of scientists, historians and genealogists who are more careful about communicating their findings. The bad publicity generated by BritainsDNA also led to all the genetic ancestry companies being tarred with the same brush, even though the major players are somewhat more responsible with their marketing campaigns and provide tests that have more practical utility, especially when used in combination with genealogical research. However, I think the lessons learnt from the saga have encouraged the companies to be more careful about how they present the science behind genetic ancestry testing. Some companies have even published articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals and have produced white papers explaining the methodology behind their reports.

That is good to hear. In fact, I covered on this blog my experience with 23andMe. But, has the fall out of BritainsDNA received similar coverage?

No it hasn’t. The media are still very wary of legal threats. I was interviewed by one national newspaper who were planning to write a short piece about our paper but the story was never published. I wrote a blog post with my colleague David Balding for The Conversation. However, they decided not to publish it as their lawyer considered that it was potentially defamatory, though the article merely reiterated what we had already said in our paper. I published the piece on my own blog instead though this will not reach such a wide audience as The Conversation.

Are there any lessons we can learn from this story in terms of media reporting?

There are a number of lessons that can be learnt from this story. When analysing the media coverage of BritainsDNA I found that only one of the published articles was written by a science journalist and he had only seemingly written the piece because he had received a free DNA test from the company. If the media are going to publish science-related articles it would make sense to make sure that the stories are covered wherever possible by journalists who have a scientific background. At the very least the journalists should seek advice from people who have expertise in the subject.

Any legitimate scientific research will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It would be a simple matter to check Google Scholar or PubMed to see if the research or a “project” mentioned in a press release has been the subject of a scientific paper. The peer review system is not perfect and is not necessarily an indicator of quality, but it does at least ensure that minimum standards have been met. If the research has not been published, then alarm bells should sound.

The credentials of the people mentioned in a press release should also be verified. Academic researchers have pages on their university website where they list their publications and the projects they are working on. BritainsDNA used the university affiliations of their directors to disguise the for-profit status of the company and to confer credibility on their business, even though their university positions were unrelated to the company’s activities. Journalists should always be on the lookout for potential conflicts of interest, and universities need to ensure that their staff do not misuse the university name to promote a business.

Another basic check would be to contact independent researchers who are not connected with the company or organisation to check the validity of the claims. Many scientists, particularly in the field of genetics, now have a presence on Twitter, and are often happy to answer questions. The Science Media Centre can help to put journalists in touch with scientists with relevant expertise. It was notable that with all the media coverage that BritainsDNA received not one journalist seems to have made any attempt to talk to an independent scientist. I believe that following these few simple steps would make a huge different to the quality of reporting.

Debbie, thank you so much for your insight. This definitely gives us lots to think about and we at Research The Headlines will continue to be vigilant on what we see, as well as we do not see, in the media.

Key references and resources:

Debbie A Kennett , Adrian Timpson, David J. Balding and Mark G. Thomas The Rise and Fall of BritainsDNA: A Tale of Misleading Claims, Media Manipulation and Threats to Academic FreedomGenealogy 2018, 2(4), 47; https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy2040047

If you want to learn more more on how to interpret genomic stories, this site will be useful: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/mace-lab/debunking

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