Denial of the Echo Chamber

Denial of the Echo Chamber

One of the many reasons I have a blog is so that I can spout, mostly nonsense, into the ether my thoughts on a particular topic that piques my interest. It just so happens that this blog has a specific focus. Most of the posts on these pages cover the various bits of “science” - mostly bad science - that grab sensationalist headlines, that do nothing more than to confuse a highly nuanced subject. Most of the time I am fairly factual, though quite often I will, quite frankly, take the piss.

It’s cathartic.

Enter today’s subject.

Blog fog? Using rapid response to advance science and promote debate

From the sub-journal of the BMJ: Tobacco Control. The very same journal - I refuse to call it a “scientific journal” as it doesn’t really do science, it does policy. Most of the works published in said journal are written by interest specific political activists. Even worse than that, it has some delightfully spiteful and intolerant editors on their board including, none other than Stan McChapman.

Now of course it isn’t really that nice to go around calling people names, but frankly those two deserve it. Especially when they have both accused normal people of being “industry shills” and refuse to engage in any kind of debate, except those that fellow zealots can get to. Trigger happy with the social media block buttons, those two (among many others) shut down any dissenting voices, and have even gone as far as being afraid of a waitress from Cornwall!

Y’see, it’s all about groupthink within tobacco control. Any and all dissenting voices must be eliminated at any cost, but if those voices do want to debate a topic it can only be done in the “Rapid Responses” forum available. Oh, and that forum is on the Tobacco Control BMJ website. That no-one of any sane mind would visit.

As editors of Tobacco Control we are always pleased to see readers thinking critically about what they read in this journal and using the ‘Rapid Response’ forum to engage in constructive academic debate. However, the growing use of personal blogs to criticise published articles has led us to reflect on appropriate ways of engaging in such debate and how we as editors should respond to comments made outside the ‘Rapid Response’ forum. This editorial summarises these reflections and clarifies our policy on post-publication discussion of research articles.

Say what now? A policy to stop any engagement outside the walls of the ivory tower? Is someone failing their own scream test? I take it the editors of this illustrious ridiculous journal don’t like being analysed and challenged outside of their safe-space then. Let me make it abundantly clear for you. If you publish something that isn’t behind a paywall (as most of the junk science usually is) I will read it, analyse it and offer my thoughts, wanted or not. If said article is behind a paywall (you really think I’m going to pay to read some of that junk?), then I will find a way to get hold of it. Though, truth be told everytime I’ve reached out to a lead author on any piece published in this rag, all I’ve ever got back is stone cold silence. Speaks volumes doesn’t it?

Tobacco Control provides a valuable forum for analysis, commentary and debate in the field of tobacco control. This includes public presentation of research undertaken and reviewed by scientists and practitioners in the field, so that it may inform and progress scientific inquiry, health policy and debate. While the editors make decisions about what is and is not published in this forum, these decisions are made with expert advice and balancing many factors-–—including research quality, contributions to the field, innovation, international impact and policy relevance.

Judging by some of the ridiculous articles posted in this rag, the research quality, contributions to the field and innovation levels need to be yanked up by their underpants. The overall quality of this rag is no better than The Sun tabloid newspaper in the UK. Most of what I’ve seen from this so-called journal should never have been published, but then the peer review system for tobacco and vaping science is beyond broken.

Recent comments posted on some personal blogs impugn the objectivity of Tobacco Control and its reviewers, questioning our motives and the veracity of peer review. The editors take complaints about scientific rigour very seriously and, when indicated, we undertake further internal review of papers and peer-review reports to ensure appropriate processes were followed and the decision to publish is defensible. Our role is to facilitate the processes of peer review, transparency and accountability which underpin the legitimacy and independence of academic research.

If the editorial board and the peer reviewers actually did their jobs, then a substantial portion of the journal’s content would never see the light of day. But this journal exists for one reason, and one reason only: to influence public policy.

It is not the place of journal editors to defend the detailed content of research articles that are published in the journal, since this reflects the work of the relevant authors. Ultimately, the author is the guarantor of his or her work and is entitled to be aware of and respond to critiques of that work, particularly when those critiques question accuracy or scientific integrity. Thus the proper place to pose questions and debate conclusions from research published in Tobacco Control is directly to the authors, in the form of a Rapid Response. This mechanism provides a public forum for discussing concerns about a study and, since it is permanently linked to the paper electronically, allows readers to consider the critique alongside the original paper. PubMed Commons provides a similar forum which links to the paper’s index in PubMed and also provides for a public record of the comments and any responses.

Maybe it isn’t the editors place to defend the content, but it is the editorial boards job to make sure the content is worthy of publication - that means it must adhere to a certain standard, but then e-cig research has made a mockery of tobacco control, and for good reason.

The participation of scientists and scholars in peer review is critical to advance science, since this is how any errors of concern could be identified and addressed. As editors, we sometimes struggle to secure reviewers for papers, facing many declinations or non-responses. This is a particular frustration when declining reviewers are those who have been vocal about the flaws in others’ work. Occasionally, an individual who has written a postpublication critique has declined invitations to review similar papers prepublication. While there are many reasons why one may be unable to review at a given time, assisting with prepublication rather than post hoc external critique is the best way to improve the quality of the research that is published in Tobacco Control or any other journal.

Yes, actual debate does indeed advance science - when the authors don’t withhold information crucial to replication of an experiment that is, like this one. That type of behaviour doesn’t do anyone any favours, least of all scientific advancement. Still wondering why we’re angry ?

Peer review is imperfect and mistakes are known to happen. Some issues may arise from misinterpretation on the part of the reader, or inelegant phrasing by the author. Others may arise due to the limitations of the study or differences in interpretation of results. As noted above, the Rapid Response process provides a forum for exploring such issues. In contrast, placing personal blog posts or social media messages complaining about a study, alleging flaws in the review process, or making ad hominem attacks on authors or editors do not advance the field or allow an appropriate scientific dialogue and debate. This is especially so for topics that are controversial, where discussion of alternative views about the interpretation of findings would be beneficial for readers to view alongside the published article.

Laughable. “Mistakes are known to happen” - fact is, many of the papers published would never see light of day except for two things:

  1. It’s e-cigs
  2. Publish or perish

It really is that simple. Stop trying to hide behind “mistakes can happen” ‘cos frankly, the research published in this rag isn’t worthy of being called science.

As a result of discussion about these issues, the Tobacco Control editorial team has now established a policy that editors will not respond to external blog posts or social media messages about specific studies. Rather, to ensure authentic, respectful scientific debate that makes a genuine contribution to the field, we encourage readers to submit comments about individual Tobacco Control publications as Rapid Responses. This allows the authors to respond and maintains a public record of the discussion. To submit a Rapid Response on any paper, click the link on the title page of the electronic version. Rapid Responses should be succinctly written without emotive language and be respectful to the authors of the original publication.

So shutting the doors to off-site debate and criticism. That’s going to work wonders for scientific advancement isn’t it? Let’s face it, when someone like me who has no scientific degrees, no fancy letters after my name, no doctorate, can rip apart your fabled “science” then there is something dreadfully wrong with how you are doing your jobs.

Blogs and social media have important roles to play in disseminating research, but sometimes do not serve well the advancement of scientific discourse. We will always welcome legitimate criticism of methods, results and interpretation of published research. But we will discourage engagement with and dissemination of polemics that contribute to public misunderstandings and create conflict. As journal editors, we encourage constructive criticism and debate in ways that strengthen the evidence base for effective tobacco control policy rather than amplifying individual voices.

I’m glad you recognise the value of social media and blogs, ‘cos there are far more of us than there are of you. We’re not going to play by your rules and use the “rapid response” system only to have our comments twisted into something else entirely. We’re human beings, capable of reasoned debate. Treat us like it and stop burrowing your collective heads in the sand whenever there’s a dissenting voice.

You owe it to us to listen and engage.