Fake Science: More Common Than You Think

Yet again the edifices of peer review were shaken by recent retractions in The New England Journal of Medicine and Cochrane Reviews. The article (and another “expression of concern publication”) retracted in the NEJM was authored by a Brigham and Women’s Hospital researcher (an institution of which I am a graduate), Dr. Piero Anversa, who has been implicated in the fraudulent publication of as many as 31 cardiac stem cell articles. Meanwhile, under seeming political pressures from a group of patient activists that decried an analysis entitled: “Exercise as treatment for patients with chronic fatigue syndrome,” deeming it a personal affront to their suffering, the editors of the prestigious Cochrane Reviews decided to withdraw it. The scientist who did the actual review for the journal lodged a bitter complaint about this “editorial” decision; it is hard to miss the irony here of Cochrane Reviews being a supposed impartial arbitrator of medical scientific quality that drives clinical decision-making. Fraudulent scientific results, politics trumping science, what is a reader to believe?

None of the above events should be interpreted as truly shocking. In fact they are merely minor blips in the everyday world of peer-reviewed scientific journalism. Moreover the issues at hand do not necessarily reflect inherent defects in either of these two prominent journals. Scientific fraud is as old as science, and the unwitting publication of such fraudulent results is sadly a common occurrence. Meanwhile the political skirmish going on inside Cochrane Reviews is merely a window into the proverbial sausage factory of so much of science, and especially the generation of medical guidelines. My issue is not with what happened to either of these storied publications but with the persona these journals seek to portray to the public. Although both journals pretend to embrace some magical and uncompromising review process, the result of which is only truth, it ain’t true! Despite their unimpeachable facades, the NEJM and Cochrane Reviews are very human and inherently flawed institutions; peer review, no matter how diligent will never be able to suss out all forms of dishonesty and political influences. My beef with these prestigious journals is that they too often pretend otherwise, and by doing so undermine the very inherent skepticism that is essential for truly great science. Science is not correct because it is published in important journals like the NEJM or Cochrane Reviews, but because it can stand up to even the most withering analysis. It is replication that makes science believable and true. Many academics will stoop to the lowest levels to get published in these prestigious and important journals, as witnessed in these recent controversies, and when that does happen, it is that much harder to challenge the science in question. How ironic that these esteemed journals are prone to sowing the very seeds of their own undoing.

Of course Cureus would love to be among the pantheon of famous journals, and over a long enough time, just maybe we will compete with 200-year-old NEJM. But for now, Cureus is content to be a straightforward, humble, easy-to-use and access journal that does its best to bring our readers straightforward medical knowledge. Ironically, Cureus’ relative lack of prestige may mean the content within is even more believable. No matter, our journal is more than happy to facilitate any and all debate by either skeptics or champions, through the publication of either contradictory or replicative analysis. Ultimately it is not individual genius (or vaunted journals) that reveals scientific truth, but rather the actual struggle to find it.

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