Studies published in peer-reviewed journals become the basis for everything from the advice your doctor gives you to the very laws that govern us. A journal’s ability to tell good science from bad is critical. But some journals have used poor judgment, and even replaced judgment with a bias of their own.
Take the case of the UK medical journal, “The Lancet.” Back in 1998, they published a study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, implying a causal relationship between childhood vaccines and autism. The study (on 12 children) was junk—but it took on a life of its own.
The journal defended it, and parents took heed. In the ensuing years, relying on the study and the media stories it caused, countless parents chose not to vaccinate their kids, causing hundreds of needless illnesses and likely a few deaths. As criticism of the study mounted, 10 of the 13 authors of Dr. Wakefield’s study withdrew their names from the paper. But the journal resolutely stood by Dr. Wakefield.
Only last month, after a British medical panel ruled that Wakefield had violated basic research ethics rules and been dishonest, did the journal retract the study. But the study was widely discredited long before last month’s decision. The journal failed us by taking so long to admit that the study was garbage. We should take heed and consider this when evaluating the credibility of other fear-mongering studies from the Lancet.
This week, another journal made headlines with a new policy that could lead to even more harm. PLoS Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science, announced that it will no longer consider for publication any paper “where support, in whole or in part, for the study or the researchers comes from a tobacco company.”
Why? Their reason is not simple, it is simplistic. They write, in essence, that tobacco is “indisputably bad for health,” and that the tobacco industry has a history of behaving badly. This is an excuse, not a justification, to ban what could in fact be legitimate and valid science.
Now, I cannot imagine a widely used product that is worse than cigarettes. And for years, tobacco companies were guilty of denying the dangers of smoking and failed to admit that nicotine is addictive (they’ve given up that tactic). As deadly as cigarettes are, though, and as badly as tobacco companies behaved, this does not make it okay to censor a study simply because they underwrote it. Isn’t it the job of peer reviewers to evaluate studies on their merits? What good is a peer-reviewed journal if a journal doesn’t trust itself to determine whether a study is valid?
The tobacco industry, like any other industry, non-profit organization, individual scientist, or even government entity has a bias. (Similarly, vaccine fear-monger Dr. Wakefield was heavily supported by plaintiffs lawyers trying to sue vaccine makers.) But PLoS should not rule out the possibility that the industry can fund useful science.
PLoS also oversimplifies the matter by stating, flat out, that “tobacco is indisputably bad for health.” Sure, nobody should start using tobacco in any form. Yet there is growing scientific evidence that the use of smokeless tobacco may help cigarette smokers quit, by switching to what is a far less harmful product. In doing so, they significantly reduce their tobacco-related risks. After all, it is the burning and inhaling of tobacco that is most dangerous. Doctors may chose to recommend this “harm reduction” approach to their patients who (as is common) have failed to quit despite using all the approved, safer methods.
Certainly, there are arguments to be made by on both sides of this issue. So how do we decide whether harm reduction should be used as a legitimate smoking cessation technique? Peer-reviewed scientific literature. In fact, tobacco companies wishing to make harm reduction claims must show the Food and Drug Administration that smokeless tobacco is less harmful, and that the approach would have an overall benefit to public health. To do so, they must present studies in peer-reviewed journals.
But who, if not for the tobacco industry, would fund such studies? Unfortunately, perhaps because of a bias by government scientists and policymakers, U.S. federal agencies are not investing in this type of research, despite the ongoing, frightful toll of preventable smoking addiction.
Why not allow the tobacco industry to fund and offer for publication studies on such issues? Journals should review such studies, like all others, with the highest level of scrutiny—and publish them only if they pass scientific muster. Such attacks on industry-funded science actually undermine the interests of the public, which benefits from the publication of a full range of studies, regardless of who funds them.
Journals should be like referees, deliberating on the substance of studies. If they did so, perhaps they’d stop publishing junk, get over their moralistic censorship, and just publish good science whatever the source. We’d all be better off for it.
Jeff Stier is an associate director of the American Council on Science and Health.