Face the Facts

Facing Facts

Facing facts can be tough in heated policy debates. So tough, in fact, that a minor trend of shopping for facts to support your views is at work in different ways, polluting the scientific literature. This trend is not entirely new. Both zealous advocates for a cause and business interests have always been motivated to look for sources of information that support their agendas. The inevitability of some mistakes in scientific analysis creates the need for rigorous peer review.

What’s changed is a growing proliferation of journals that serve up scientific papers without adequate peer review.

You can find an example laid out in unusual detail in Obesity Facts, where a flawed analysis of bias in school-based obesity prevention escaped detection and was published last August. After publication, Peng Li and colleagues found the errors, wrote to the journal, and, because the flaws were so great, recommended that the article be retracted. The journal editor went so far as to seek an independent expert review of the paper, which reached the same conclusion that the analysis was fatally flawed.

Yet, the authors have refused to retract the publication. So it stands unmodified in a peer-reviewed journal as an example of pollution in the scientific literature.

In Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Arthur Caplan expands upon the problem of publication pollution by plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing. He concludes:

The time for a serious, sustained international effort to halt publication pollution is now. Otherwise scientists and physicians will not have to argue about any issue — no one will believe them anyway.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. But we must work from only one set of facts.

Click here for the flawed publication on school-based obesity prevention, here for the analysis of the errors, here for the author’s response, and here for commentary from the journal’s editor. Click here for Caplan’s editorial in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Face the Facts, Lucky Strikes 1931 cigarette ad from clotho98 / flickr

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2 Responses to “Facing Facts”

  1. April 14, 2015 at 6:44 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    I had not heard the term “publication pollution” before, but it sure fits!

    Thanks, Ted. Time for more leaning in to discomfort.


    • April 14, 2015 at 5:37 pm, Ted said:

      I was impressed by the call to action on scientific integrity, Joe. It really is tough to get people to pay attention if we can’t get the peer-review house in order.