Mound of Butter

Big Butter Bias Bites the BMJ

Has a big butter bias bitten the BMJ on the backside? Roughly 180 academics from all over the world have signed an open letter to the BMJ. They’re asking for better editorial rigor at one of the BMJ journals – The British Journal of Sports Medicine. What prompted this? A series of articles seeming to promote a pro-butter bias.

Questioning Guidelines Regarding Saturated Fat

We first noted this odd editorial tilt in BJSM three years ago. Back then, the journal published a strident editorial about obesity. You might expect that a sports medicine journal would be offering opinions about the value of physical activity. But that was not the case. Aseem Malhotra and colleagues were laying out the case for big sugar’s conspiracy to make us all fat:

It is time to wind back the harms caused by the junk food industry’s public relations machinery. Let us bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity. You cannot outrun a bad diet.

And then last year, the journal published another polarizing commentary by Malhotra. “Saturated fat does not clog the arteries,” he stated flatly. Refined carbs are the real problem.

Right away, that opinion piece struck David Nunan and other nutrition scholars as an “implausible discussion.” So they wrote a rebuttal. However, more than a year passed before BJSM would publish it. On top of that, the journal was reluctant to make it freely available with open access.

Calling for Better Rigor and Balance

Controversies surrounding saturated fat won’t go away anytime soon. The idea that saturated fat is good for you hasn’t taken over. But the consensus about health and fats is very much a moving target. So Nunan’s objection is not so much about the pro-butter bias. It’s really about what he perceives as a process that’s out of whack. Why is a sports medicine journal publishing so much content about saturated fats, dietary guidelines, and heart disease? Nunan cites a series of ten articles with the same focus. He told the Times of London:

It’s like the Journal of Atherosclerosis publishing an article about knee injuries. It’s odd and it raises questions about why it’s there. The narrative is all about … a low carb, high-fat diet. That’s a personal stance.

Thus he organized the letter from 180 scholars calling for more rigor at the BJSM. In response, BJM Editor Fiona Godlee says she welcomes academic criticism. But she expressed little intention to change things at the BJSM. A discussion of the journal’s scope might be coming, she said. However, she also said that editorial independence is essential for a journal’s academic reputation.

Maybe so. But when a journal becomes a soapbox, it might cease to have academic credibility.

Click here for the letter to BJM and Godlee’s response. For a summary of the issue from Nunan et al, click here.

Mound of Butter, Painting by Antoine Vollon / Wikimedia Commons

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October 28, 2018