A journal editor calls for quarantine of “groundbreaking studies about new treatments”

L-R: Nancy Shute, Jocalyn Clark, Elizabeth Loder, Gary Schwitzer

Dr. Elizabeth Loder, who is a US research editor for the BMJ, blogged “How medical journals can help stop disease-mongering.” in the blog, Loder reflected on her recent participation on a panel I moderated at the Selling Sickness conference in Washington, DC.  Joining Loder on the panel were Jocalyn Clark, PhD, of PLoS Medicine, and Nancy Shute, who blogs and reports for NPR.org.

Loder blogged about some of the ideas she shared with the audience during the panel session. Excerpt:

First, why not quarantine apparently ground breaking studies about new treatments or interventions in a special journal until the findings are replicated and long term consequences explored? Print copies of the journal would arrive in plain brown wrappers which undone would show the journal’s cover logo of a skull and crossbones. During quarantine, any news stories or summaries of research from this journal would travel with a sternly worded disclaimer, along the lines of those that accompany investment company advertisements. Something like the following would do nicely:

“Warning! Taking any action on the basis of this research could result in injury or death. The results described in this study have not been replicated and the long term effects of this treatment are unknown. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. When subjected to further investigation, most published research findings turn out to be false.”

To fill the void, medical journals deprived of these sensational research studies could instead devote themselves to the promotion and prioritization of the less glamorous medical research that really matters: replication studies, comparative effectiveness trials, and long term pharmacosurveillance and safety studies.

My second suggestion was that several parts of a typical research paper are too important to be written by the researchers or anyone else with a vested interest in the outcome of the research. These include the portions where “spin” is mostly likely to enter into the paper, namely the title, abstract, results, and conclusion sections, and any summary or “what this study adds” statements that authors are now sometimes asked to supply. These portions of research papers should instead be written by disinterested parties with subject matter expertise.

(Home page quarantine photo/art via musicalwds on flickr.com)


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Bruce Lewenstein

March 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm

On the idea of having someone other than the authors write key parts of the paper, two points:

1. In 1973, NEJM experimented with having parts of an article rewritten by an experienced science journalist (Barbara Culliton, of SCIENCE). Reaction was mixed: while many readers preferred the rewritten version, others missed the precision of the original. (Gutterman, Jordan U., Rossen, Roger D., Butler, William T., McCredie, Kenneth B., Bodey, Gerald P., Sr., Freireich, Emil J., Hersh, Evan M., and (revised version only) Culliton, Barbara. (1973). Immunoglobulin on Tumor Cells and Tumor-Induced Lymphocyte Blastogenesis in Human Acute Leukemia. New England Journal of Medicine, 288(4 (25 January)), 169-173, 173-175 (revised version).)

2. During the HWANG Woo Suk stem cell controversy, University of Pittsburgh researcher Edward Schatten was criticized for sharing co-authorship when, as the scandal unfolded, he defended himself by saying that his primary role had been to help with the English and to handle correspondence with the journal SCIENCE. “If all he did was to write the paper, he should not have been named an author,” the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION wrote (Guterman, Lila. (2006, 3 February). A Silent Scientist Under Fire, Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 15.) While I understand the point, I find the statement that the linguistic construction that the writer isn’t an author an interesting comment on what constitutes “authorship.”