Thursday, 4 August 2016

Being Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre
I had the privilege this week (2 August 2016) of hearing Dr Ben Goldacre when he addressed INANE (International Academy of Nursing Editors) 2016 at the headquarters of the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom in London, UK. Goldacre is the author of two seminal books: Bad Science (don't forget to Google 'The doctor will sue you now' for the missing chapter) and Bad Pharma which have made his name as someone who sees through the 'bullshit' around many medical and scientifc claims and who is not afraid to speak out about what he sees. To that he has added I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That which he signed for me after the lecture.

The experience of listeing to Goldacre must be what it was like taking a machine gun nest in the Second World War: a spray of words and ideas delivered at high speed with the occasional grenade tossed in. He clearly keeps a single massive PowerPoint for these occasions into which he delves, fast forwards and then focuses on whatever point he wants to make that day. Inevitably (and I imagine always) he runs out of time. He will have had to be more disciplined for his TED talk Battling bad science as these require rehearsal and precision in front of TED advisors according to Ted Talks: the Official TED Guide to Public Speaking.

Goldacre's crowning achievement and the mission he now preaches about is the All Trials Campaign which is a significant effort to force clinical triallists - especially those involved with pharmaceutical companies - to present all their data according to the original protocol and to publish the trials which were in favour of the control group. Most reputable journals are signed up to this.

However, this is not the place to rehearse all that Ben Goldacre has said in any of his books or blogs; instead - what callenged me this week? Goldacre asked how many of us were full-time editors and I think there was only one feeble effort to raise a hand.  His point was to ask how many of us carried out the vital task of scrutinising research, some of it using RCTs, when we had so many competing demands as academics and clinicians. On the other hand, he asked what we were being paid for (albiet that some of us are not paid*), if we did not scrutinise the science we publish - especially RCTs on which major purchasing and prescribing decisions are made. It is obvious that many trials are not publshed according to protocol, i.e. they report secondary outcomes without declaration, and even when they do report trials accurately on offical websites such as that they then do not publish them accurately (honestly?) in journals. It also seems, from a study that Goldcare has conducted, that some leading medical journals (he praised the BMJ, was lukewarm about The Lancet and less enthisiastic about JAMA and NEJM and AIM) are less than willing to have the extent to which they are complying with the highest standards or reporting RCTs pointed out and to publish related correspondence.

Richard Gray
Professor Richard Gray of the Hamad Medical Coporation and Associate Editor of Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing said what many of us were thinking when he raised whether or not journals were the place to publish RCTs and should this not simply be left to online repositories. Goldacre more or less agreed and certainly pointed to the economy of information required in, for example, - essentially just the results with little room for discussion.

I don't think that there will be a massive movement away from publishing RCTs - after all, who would go first and risk the loss of good articles, citations and the contribution to journal impact factor while others persisted? But I do think most of the editors present will now be considering how we can publish RCTs better and also audit that we are doing it better.

* I wish to declare that I am supported financially by Wiley for my work with Journal of Advanced Nursing and Nursing Open

You can listen to this as a podcast

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Predatory publishers: the fight back starts here

The International Journal of Complete 5h1t (IJCS) - call for paper (serrated)

Dear Esteemed Dr Predator


I hope you are feeling frisky and gay this day!!!!!!!

Thank you for your invitation to publish in your worthless and fraudulent journal; sadly I must decline because I am too busy to waste my time writing something that will remove a sizeable chunk of my income and have a negative effect on my reputation.  I don't give a damn that you'll promise to publish it - probably within the week - after rigorous peer review.  Publishing within a week and rigorous peer review are mutually exclusive and if you expect me to fall for that then you must think I am as stupid, as you are corrupt.

Forgive my intrusion into your inbox but you saw fit to intrude into mine and every time you do so you will receive this email, or an even more offensive one.  I am not esteemed, I don't know who you are - and don't care - and your enquiries after my health or state of mind are irrelevant diversions from your criminal intentions.

Those of us who receive your daily, repetitive and obsequious drivel are getting tired and we are going to fight back.  We are going to make sure that as many people as possible know what your intentions are, that our universities take steps to prevent academics publishing in your pages and we are not going to stop until you are no longer in business and stop preying on hard-working but naive academics.

With amiable best wishes that you have a great day

Yours in scholarship

Ripov D Lotya
World Editor

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Publishing malpractice – time for universities to act

The following is the text of an opinion piece submitted to Times Higher Education and due to be published - in an edited form - on 4 April 2013:

Publishing malpractice – time for universities to act

Universities operate rigid systems for vetting the quality and costing of research which is conducted under their auspices.  Likewise, they insist that this research adheres to the highest ethical standards and establish ethics committees to review relevant proposals.  However, universities do not operate systems for vetting the probity of research outputs.  We argue that they should.

As the webpages of the Committee on Publication Ethics demonstrate, publishing malpractice continues. Issues of inappropriate authorship and academic fraud are evident with one of the main problems being similarity between manuscripts. Of course, some of this is due to better means of detection by journals as part of the submission process, leading to the detection of plagiarism and duplication.  Furthermore, similarity does not, automatically, mean either plagiarism or duplication, but extensive similarity sometimes leads to the detection and subsequent admission of malpractice. These instances are potentially disastrous for the author’s career—but such conduct may also reflect on the institution—and in today’s world of trial by media, university’s may want to think about protecting their reputations.

Universities do provide systems for similarity detection for students and provide copious and specific guidance and threats regarding malpractice.  It is a reasonably safe assumption that academics understand the issues at stake, but a decreasingly safe assumption that academics always adhere to the highest ethical publishing standards. 

The main responsibility for avoiding malpractice rests with authors and the vast majority are good citizens.  The main responsibility for detection lies with publishers, who also have a responsibility to inform authors about good practice and to administer systems for similarity detection and to have systems for reporting the outcome of malpractice which can include retraction of published papers.  However, is this sufficient and should universities and other public and commercial bodies from which publications emanate not take a more active role?

It is hard to understand, in an age of research assessment—essentially a system of publication assessment—that universities are so rigorous about the inputs to research: proposals; funding; and ethics, while virtually ignoring the quality of the outputs or establishing processes whereby the integrity of publications are vetted.  Dissenters will complain about an additional tier of scrutiny; publications are already peer reviewed, why add a pre-review process?  However, the same applies to research proposals which are refereed externally to the university but for which most universities provide for pre-submission review as an obligatory step to accepting and administering the funding. Furthermore, peer review cannot, usually, address issues such as authorship, fraud or even similarity.

What steps could be instituted to improve the probity of research outputs by universities?  The very least that universities should insist on is that, prior to submission to a journal, there should be scrutiny for similarity; this will help to avoid plagiarism and duplication.  All publications should be read by a cognate colleague, simply to help improve the quality of the writing but also to see if any insights into the necessity for and originality of the paper can be gleaned; this may also uncover some aspects of academic fraud such as data fabrication, and where co-authors inside and outside the university are involved, then statements of agreement to the contents of the final submitted version should be obtained and filed.  Given that none of this happens—to our knowledge—at the moment in any university then it represents a start; at the very least it may deter potential wrongdoers from doing wrong; on the whole it will help people who have little experience of publishing and may make genuine mistakes.

Another growing area of publishing malpractice is authorship. Universities could play an important role in checking that all authors on a paper merit being there. There are clear guidelines as to what constitutes authorship in journal guidelines; these should be checked by the institution. An additional measure would be the development of institutional publishing codes of practice. Some universities do this and it should be more widespread. It can help deal with the issues of PhD supervisory input on publications, guest authorship by senior faculty and also the order of authorship.

Data management processes, including the deposition of data with databanks and journals for scrutiny by referees and future researchers, should help reduce fraudulence and fabrication of data.  These are not new but they are becoming more common and will soon be obligatory.

We enter the public domain when things go wrong, such as ‘Climategate’ when University of East Anglia academics were accused of manipulating data.  How much more often will this happen as research outputs become more freely available and the impact of research comes under increasing scrutiny?  Procedures for ensuring that academics are honest in their publications should help to keep us in the public eye for the right reasons.

Roger Watson and Mark Hayter are Editors of Journal of Advanced Nursing, both are Professors at the University of Hull.