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article imageHow reliable is that science paper?

By Tim Sandle     Apr 17, 2018 in Science
A few scientists are open to bribery and influence, but science journals and the peer review process have long been held up to be robust examples of the scientific method. A new report throws up some doubts.
There are two concerns flagged in a recent report by Science Alert, written by Fiona McDonald. The first looks at the emergence of new digital based science journals and the second considers the way that science editors may be open to influence in terms of payments from pharmaceutical companies.
The digital age has seen a range of new ‘science journals’ appear. These are sometimes referred to as ‘predatory journals’, seeking out scientists to write for them and charging the scientists for the privilege. The robustness of the review process is often questionable or non-existent. The idea that they are "predatory" is based on the view that academics are tricked into publishing with them.
In one example of the loose quality control surrounding ‘predatory journals’, one scientist succeeded, with minimum effort, of tricking four publications into accepting a made-up paper about midi-chlorians (the fictional life forms in Star Wars that, at least in the prequels, give ‘force’ users their powers). The researcher even used the false name Dr Lucas McGeorge as the author of the paper. One of the four journals, the American Journal of Medical and Biological Research, accepted the paper and demanded a $360 fee to publish it.
The second area is about some journals being potentially open to influence in terms of receiving external funding. This issue has been taken up by researcher Jason Fung. Fung has written an article on Medium, presenting data that shows how some medical journal editors are paid huge sums by pharmaceutical companies each year. Fung intends to present his findings to the European Parliament during April 2018.
This follows on from a paper that was published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 (“Payments by US pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers to US medical journal editors: retrospective observational study”). The paper looked into how much funding editors of some of the most influential medical journals were receiving from industry sources. This review noted that 50.6 percent of editors had received money from the pharmaceutical industry, with the sums extending to - hundreds of thousands of dollars in some instances. The research showed that the mean general payment was $28 136, and the highest payments went to the subject areas of endocrinology, cardiology, gastroenterology, rheumatology and urology.
This type of practice matters, according to McDonald because some journal editors could be persuaded to print research that supports products from the companies that are providing the funding. More concerningly, this could lead to ignoring some of the evidence that might go against the products themselves. Even where everything is above board, there is a risk that the general public will be less convinced with research findings about, say a medicine, where payments have been made by the very company that developed the drug in the first place.
There are many other examples of ‘bad science.’ Digital Journal regularly runs science articles. While many of the findings are legitimate it is worth maintaining an air of skepticism. Digital Journal has provided a checklist for spotting ‘bad science’, see our article "What is ‘bad science’ and how to spot it?"
More about science papers, Bad science, good science, Science
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