Power of the press: journal changes study after critical news story

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In an unusual move, a journal has actually gone in and changed a previously-stated conclusion of a previously-published paper. This follows a Reuters Health story that raised questions about the study. Today Reuters reports:

“A journal editor has scrubbed a line supporting the use of a L’Oreal-Nestle tanning pill from the conclusion of a company-sponsored study.

The edits come days after a Reuters Health story about serious shortcomings in the report.

Dr. Tanya Bleiker, editor of the British Journal of Dermatology, which published the study, told Reuters Health this week by e-mail she had changed the conclusion of the report, with the permission of the authors, and added the researchers’ financial conflicts.

Half of them were employees of Laboratoires Inneov, a joint venture between L’Oreal and Nestle that makes the tanning pill, called Inneov Sun Sensitivity. However, the original version of the study did not include a conflict of interest statement, Bleiker said last week, because “the authors stated very clearly that there was no conflict of interest.”

On the first page of the report, the researchers concluded that their “results support the use of this nutritional supplement.”

That sentence has now been removed. But the new version of the report now available online still says the tanning pill increases the threshold for sunburns and “represents a complementary strategy to sun avoidance and sunscreen use for a global approach to photoprotection.”

An independent dermatologist who reviewed the results for Reuters Health disputed those claims last week.

Referring to whether the pill would protect women against the sun’s harmful UV rays, Dr. Peter Schalock, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said he had “hard time seeing that statistically or scientifically (the researchers) have proven it.”

Journalists and the general public can learn from this example. Journals aren’t perfect. Publication – even in a top-notch journal – doesn’t make a study bullet-proof. Peer review has flaws. Conflict of interest disclosure policies are variable and have holes in them.

A radical thought – but one I harbor quite often: Maybe we just spend too much news time, space and attention on journal articles.

But kudos to Reuters for pulling some of the covers off of this one.

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Grant Steen

July 31, 2010 at 10:03 am

This was an interesting post, but I quibble with it on several counts. First, the British Journal of Dermatology is hardly “a top-notch journal,” so what befalls it has no bearing on what might happen at the New England Journal. In fact, though I’ve never read it, I suspect that BJD is actually a very minor journal, because it’s certainly poorly edited; any editor who would let those silly claims through is simply not paying attention. Second, the idea that we give too much attention to newly-published papers is flat wrong; they’re controversial, so that’s where there’s news. The problem is that most reporters do a bad job of writing about science; they fail to put new work in context or to write about what are often obvious flaws. The public, most of whom rely on reporters for the story, then uncritically accept whatever they read. If reporters and the public were more savvy about science, then it would not be possible to claim that a pill will protect you from UV rays.

Gary Schwitzer

July 31, 2010 at 11:15 am

Thanks for your note.
I never said the BJD was a top-notch journal. I was making a broader point about publication – even in top-notch journals – not making a study bullet-proof.
You’re entitled to your opinion that my idea that perhaps we devote too much attention to newly-published papers is – as you put it – “flat wrong.” But it is just that – your opinion.
I have a different opinion – one I’ve spoken about and written about many times. “Flat wrong” is a judgment we should probably reserve for things we can prove. If anything, the sentence you wrote after your “flat wrong” opinion backs up the very point I was making. Too many people who aren’t trained to do so spend too much time steering public attention to, and public opinion about, research that the writers don’t evaluate adequately.
We track news coverage of studies every day on our HealthNewsReview.org site – and have done so for more than four years – more than 1,100 stories in all. So I have some pretty solid data to back up my opinion.
Gary Schwitzer

Ivan Oransky

July 31, 2010 at 8:37 pm

The British Journal of Dermatology is the fourth-ranked journal in dermatology, with a very respectable impact factor of about 4, depending which statistic you like: impact factor of 4.260, 5-year impact factor of 3.955. That’s fourth out of 48 journals in dermatology.
I know that because we only pick studies to cover at Reuters Health from among journals ranked highly by my colleagues at Thomson Scientific using validated criteria in their Journal Citation Reports.
But even if BJD weren’t highly ranked, the fact is that L’Oreal-Nestle was using this study to bolster “clinically proven” claims. That makes the flaws in this study — and the editor’s lightning-fast correction of at least some of them — important.
Ivan Oransky, MD
Executive Editor, Reuters Health

Andrew Burd

August 3, 2010 at 10:01 am

Grant…the BJD is one of the top rated dermatology journals and as such is an A-rated journal in the world of academia. This is very disturbing and for an academic one has to wonder what went wrong in the review process…I see this had been addressed in other comments but please do not adopt the blinkers of the Bostonian’s. There is life and truth outside the NEJM! Best wishes.