When a scientific journal does the right thing

Today I want to tell a positive story where a scientific journal did the right thing.

I’ve written a lot about bad science over the years. I am particularly concerned when bogus scientific results, sometimes fraudulent, sometimes just careless, manage to sneak into the peer-reviewed scientific literature. This happens all too often, especially as the number of articles published each year increases. These bad papers are then used by fraudsters and charlatans (and sometimes by innocent people who just don’t have the experience to understand) to “prove” an unscientific claim.

Fortunately, a growing number of journals – the better ones in general – are showing more concern than in the past and are taking action (sometimes) to retract articles, even over the objections of authors.

Before I get to the good news, a reminder of the most famous scientific paper of recent times: Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study in The lancetpublished in 1998 that claimed to find a link between vaccines and autism. The lancetto his eternal shame, failed to retract the paper until 2010, despite the avalanche of evidence that began to emerge in 2002. Ten of the original 13 authors even published their own “Retraction of an Interpretation” in 2004, but The lancet still refused to withdraw unless all authors agreed. Wakefield, already leading the anti-vaccine movement and now adored by anti-vaxxers, refused.

This article probably contributed indirectly to the deaths of thousands of people from vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. And given what we knew about him until 2002, The lancet there was no excuse for delaying withdrawal until 12 years after publication.

But I digress. Today I want to highlight an article that I called for a few years ago to be retracted, an article that the magazine, Scientific reports (published by Nature Publishing Group) did withdraw, about 9 months later.

The paper I called was a study that claimed poison oak extract could be used to treat pain. If that sounds kind of ridiculous, that’s because it is. The actual article sounded very scientific, as I pointed out in my original column. It was titled “Ultra-Dilute Toxicodendron pubescens attenuates proinflammatory cytokines and ROS-mediated neuropathic pain in rats.

Toxicodendron pubescens, in case you were wondering, is poison oak. It is not a tree and has nothing to do with oaks – it is a cousin of poison ivy and both plants contain oils that can cause severe itching and painful rashes on contact.

How on earth could poison oak be used to treat pain? Well, it can’t. The article was actually about homeopathic treatment. One of the basic tenets of homeopathy is that “like cures like” as long as you dilute it enough. So, poison oak paper started with the premise that since poison oak causes pain and itching, you might as well use it, once diluted, to treat pain and itching!

Homeopathy, as I have written before, is an extremely implausible and easily debunked set of beliefs about medicine. I use the word “faith” here deliberately because homeopathy really has no pretensions to be a type of medicine or even a hypothesis. It’s just a 200-year-old collection of beliefs that have long since been proven wrong.

If that sounds absurd, well, selling these products is an extremely profitable business. For example, check out Boericke & Tafel Oral Ivy Liquid ($15 for a 1-ounce bottle at Amazon.com), a homeopathic product that’s made from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. It is said to be “for the prevention and temporary relief of contact dermatitis associated with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac.” What’s in it? Poison oak, at very low levels. (Actually, this product isn’t really diluted to homeopathic levels: the package says it contains 0.02g of poison oak in each drop. So it could actually cause an allergic reaction – I’d stay away from that stuff.)

Back to the study: In the paper, the authors dilute a poison oak preparation to levels of 10-30, common practice in homeopathy. The problem is that at this level of dilution, not even one molecule of the original substance will remain. There is simply no way that such a dilution would have any therapeutic benefit, but somehow they found an effect. Um.

A number of scientists wrote to the journal complaining that this result was highly implausible and that the experiments did not support the conclusions. To their credit, the magazine’s editors took the complaints seriously and investigated them. The retraction notice (read it here) also pointed out another major problem: some of the numbers were duplicates! Each figure should represent a different experiment, so duplication is a big problem, adding to the fundamental implausibility of the study.

As is often the case with fraud disclosures, the authors disagree with the retraction.

When I wrote my column complaining about this study, I said that “the right thing to do is retract this article because its results are simply not valid. We’ll see if that happens.” Well, about 9 months later, that’s exactly what happened.

A few years ago I was in direct contact with the editors-in-chief of both Scientific reports and FLOOR ONE (for papers other than the one I discuss above), and they expressed genuine concern about fraudulent research, as well as a determination to do better at rooting it out. When magazines do the right thing, we should applaud them. So here’s to Scientific reportswho got it right this time.

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