“Your Science Reporting Truly Sucks…” – The Editor’s ‘Apology’

It’s not just tabloids that are having their pants pulled down at the moment. Medical journals are too.

Sorry, We're Open by marsupialrobotA few weeks the BJGP – Europe’s leading general practice journal – heralded apparently ground-breaking research on the benefits of acupuncture. On closer inspection, the research was poorly constructed, drew dubious conclusions and biased in extremis.

I wrote an outraged letter, complaining of how such a ‘peer-reviewed’ periodical could promote such utter tosh as ‘ground breaking research’. Two months have passed and the editors have had the humility to publish not just my correspondence, but that of nine others(!) Clearly I wasn’t the only one hacked off.

To readers, the deconstruction and utter lambasting from doctors, professors and lay-readers was conclusive. It’s was a shame then that the editor’s ‘response’ was so utterly lacklustre…

Climate Gate, Hack-gate – could is this be “GP-gate”?

Most science journals have a pretty niche readership. The British Journal of General Practice is quite different. Read by time-harassed GP’s who rely on the BJGP for up-to-date news on medical advancements – publishing the said research would have been bad enough. Dedicating the front cover, a press release and a significant portion of the editorial (probably the only parts many doctors get a chance to read) is, quite frankly, ludicrous.

Protest against France's immigration laws
'What do we Want? – Good Science! 'When do we Want it?' 'Now!'

In the UK, politicians have been complaining about the peer-review process – suggesting that journals should be more transparent in the way they select papers, and even advising that academics undergo training before being allowed onto a journal’s review panel. They could well be onto something.

Reading through the other letters makes for entertaining reading (Sadly, you can’t access them without being a paid subscriber). Like me, many felt that the journal was wrong to publish the research and it could potentially bring the profession into disrepute. Others suggested they should retract the paper in the way the Lancet (eventually) retracted Dr Wakefield’s MMR-Autism research.

After a barrage of complaints, an apology would have been nice. Here’s what the editor had to say for himself:

The BJGP Editor’s Response (blink and you’ll miss it):

“The BJGP Editorial Board considered this correspondence recently. The Board endorsed the Journal’s peer review process and did not consider that there was a case for retraction of the paper or for releasing the peer reviews. The Board did, however, think that the results of the study were highlighted by the Journal in an overly-positive manner. However, many of the criticisms published above are addressed by the authors themselves in the full paper.”

Yep, that’s it. They only concede they were ‘overly-positive’ in their write-up.

I think Rupert Murdoch could have done a better job…

Move over Journos, make way for the Blogger…

What no one ever tells you about bloggingPerhaps the most satisfying conclusion to this whole sorry affair is the surprising power and sway the humble blogger can have. Several of the published letters referred to blogs (which were kindly cited using full and ‘proper’ academic references – thanks BJGP). These well written, and comprehensive articles – such as the likes of David Colquhoun, Euan Lawson and Margaret Mccartney – suggest the tide is truly shifting away from the established press.

And I think I’m a fan of the change.

Bring on decentralised media. Bring on ‘crowd-sourced’ journalism. Bring on the era where quality is prized above branding.

Goodbye to news and opinion being filtered by select agencies.

Hello new world.


Got an opinion? Feel free to share your thoughts and comment below…


P.S. The latest issue of ‘Guru’ is now out – a free, bi-monthly, crowd-sourced magazine that combines scepticism, psychology, art, technology (and some other fun stuff). Check it out and let me know what you think!


Selected References:

Paterson, C., Taylor, R., Griffiths, P., Britten, N., Rugg, S., Bridges, J., McCallum, B., & Kite, G. (2011). Acupuncture for ‘frequent attenders’ with medically unexplained symptoms: a randomised controlled trial (CACTUS study) British Journal of General Practice, 61 (587), 295-305 DOI: 10.3399/bjgp11X572689

Jones, R (2011). Editor’s response British Journal of General Practice, 61 (589), 495-495 : 10.3399/bjgp11X588367

Farrimond, S (2011). Acupuncture for `frequent attenders’ with medically unexplained symptoms British Journal of General Practice, 61 (689), 494-495 : 10.3399/bjgp11X588349

3 responses to ““Your Science Reporting Truly Sucks…” – The Editor’s ‘Apology’”

  1. Good post. What’s doubly annoying about this is that I wrote a Letter to the BJGP a few months back on an unrelated topic, and I reckon it got pushed out of the latest issue by all the (sensible) criticisms of the acupuncture paper.

    At least that’s how I justify the lack of publication to myself.

  2. Hi there

    May I enquire as to your belief on the effectiveness of acupuncture generally? Is it that you felt the research simply lacked robustness and scientific rigour, or have you a closed mind to Traditional Chinese Medicine?

    I have read your blog on break-through genetic treatments and I am delighted in hearing that bio-science and genetic treatments have already made a huge difference to those suffering from debilitating and progressive conditions. Evidenced based research is very important and, as you probably know, there have been many RCTs and Systematic Reviews on acupuncture, some good, some bad and quite a few are inconclusive.

    Biomedicine and TCM have the same goal – to make people well and able to live their lives fully and free from physical and/or mental pain.

    As a student of Traditional Chinese Medicine and in my final year of study I would like to carry out research on the effectiveness of acupuncture on patients diagnosed with Medically Unexplained Symptoms. With a well-designed RCT or Series of Case-studies it could be determined whether acupuncture has a part to play in helping improve patients’ health and well-being and may establish benefits such as freeing-up time for busy GPs and savings for the NHS on inconclusive tests/medications and ongoing investigations.

    So here it is then Dr. Stu, as a ‘man of science’ I throw you the gauntlet by asking…”would you be willing to help me in the design of a similar (but better) trial than what has been done before?” I know you are a busy man, though I hope you might find this a ‘scientific challenge’…and if you decide its not for you, now or in the future, I’ll still read your blog).


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