- Editors In Chief of World’s Most Prestigious Medical Journals: “Much of the Scientific Literature, Perhaps HALF, May Simply Be Untrue” … “It Is Simply No Longer Possible To Believe Much of the Clinical Research That Is Published”
Corruption Is Destroying Basic Science
Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine are the two most prestigious medical journals in the world. It is therefore striking that their chief editors have both publicly written that corruption is undermining science. The editor in chief of Lancet, Richard Horton, wrote last month:
Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity [i.e. pervasiveness within the scientific culture] of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.
Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right.
Similarly, the editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Marcia Angell, wrote in 2009:
It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.
In her must-read essay, Dr. Angell skewers drug companies, university medical departments, and medical groups which set the criteria for diagnosis and treatment as being rotten with corruption and conflicts of interest.