Unhealthful News 38 – More on the limits of peer review, Karolinska edition

In Unhealthful News 34, I wrote about the limits of the peer review system in health science publishing.  Since that time, thanks to the comments and questions of a couple of readers, I wrote more on that topic in the comments than I did in the original post, and I recommend it for those who are interested.  (And it appears that many are interested – according to the statistics about how many people read at the site, it was my second-most popular post ever.)  What I wrote in the comments there amounts to a day or two worth of blogging in itself, so I will try to keep this brief and continue the topic later.

Today’s samizdat health news included a post by Brad Rodu about his fight with the Karolinska Institute in Sweden over their illegal refusal to provide some of their data.  Rodu, I and my colleagues at TobaccoHarmReduction.org, and sometimes all of us together have written extensively about how researchers at KI, who are motivated by an overt political agenda (a non-corporate worldly agenda, I might add, as an example of a point in yesterday’s post), have published a series of obviously biased analyses from a dataset they have that claim to show that smokeless tobacco causes various disease risks, contrary to the rest of the evidence.  I will let Rodu’s post and his promised more detailed follow-up cover the substance of the particular claims (and you can read what he, I, and others have written if you want more), and focus on the broader implications for health research reporting.  If you do want to read more, I suggest this poster (pdf) of ours, since it covers the topic area but also focuses on this case as a failure of the scientific process, including the rejection of an obviously-important letter to the editor by a journal, which relates to the comment discussion in UN34 that I linked to above.

At the simplest level, this story is a demonstration of the failures of peer review.  In publication after publication, the KI researchers got away with making contradictory claims about their data and conducting analyses that contradicted each other in their implicit claims about the best way to analyze this data.  The journal peer review process did not even seem to slow them down in this enterprise.  In fairness to the reviewers, the KI researchers used unethical tactics to reduce the chance that the reviewers would judge the work more effectively, including not cross-referencing the other papers they had written (i.e., pretending each analysis existed in a vacuum) and not trying to explain why they were making contradictory claims and shopping different statistical methods (they simply never acknowledged that they had ever looked at the data in any way other than what was used in the individual paper, rather than trying to explain why the methods varied).  Of course, since (a) the reviewers could have figured this out if they really were the studious experts that most people who think peer review is so significant probably think they are, but did not, and (b) anyone submitting a paper can employ the same tactics, the fact that the KI researchers are ultimately to blame does nothing to change the fact that this demonstrates some serious limits of peer review.

But at a deeper level the indictment of health science publishing is even worse.  What we have here is a rare – in health science – case where some researchers (Rodu, we) actually took the time to figure out that published analyses had some problems, which is the essence of real peer review.  (This is also what Michael J. McFadden did in the case he wrote about in the UN34 comments.)  Contrary to the beliefs of those who think journal reviews represent the important scientific review of a claim, the peer review that really matters comes from dozens or hundreds of experts thinking hard about something after it is made available to them (i.e., after it is published, though not necessarily in a journal – indeed, it is better if it is before it appears in a journal).  Other fields make such review possible before the immutable journal article and accompanying press release; they have a culture where anyone writing something of significance is expected to circulate it, either hand-to-hand or by posting it somewhere as a working paper, so that comments can be collected and considered, and thus errors corrected and other concerns addressed before it goes into a journal.  In health science (and some other fields) a paper is usually raced into a journal with maybe ten people ever having assessed it – and I am including papers that have eight, ten, or more authors:  most of the time no more than a few of the authors had the attentiveness and skills to really review the analysis and write-up carefully.

So in health science, a paper can only be genuinely peer reviewed (by anyone other than a few of the authors, maybe a few of their friends, an editor or two, and a couple of assigned journal referees) after it appears in a journal and, if “news worthy” in the press.  But in the case that Rodu wrote about, when he and we tried to conduct such a review and report what we discovered in the same journals that published the article (the value of which is also discussed in the UN34 comments), we were usually prevented from doing so:  Only one of the journals that published the KI claims published our letters documenting the problems. 

But it gets worse.  As I pointed out before, reviewers do not generally get access to the data and analysis, so they cannot genuinely review what is most important.  Moreover, they probably would not look very carefully at them if they had them – that would take ten times the hours and effort as most reviewers devote to a review, and most of them would not be capable of offering any important insight in any case.  But even in a case where someone wants to review an epidemiologic analysis, because they have specific concerns about what was done wrong, they cannot do it.

That observation is pretty much universal:  Health science analyses are almost always black boxes that are not subject to real scientific scrutiny.  What is unusual about the Karolinska case is that the researchers are actually legally required by the Swedish Constitution to provide their data.  If the data were shared with interested researchers, it would immediately confirm or contradict some of the observations that have been made about their conduct.  And even if they continued to defy honest scientific practice (i.e., stick to standard black-box epidemiologic practice) and not share their calculation methods (recall my observation in UN34 that reported methods do not usually reveal what methods someone actually used), there are many of us who could engage in “forensic epidemiology” to assess the other claims that have been made about them. 

Why would someone defy a court order in order to prevent anyone from checking numbers they published in a peer reviewed analyses?  Why would they have refused to even report the results of some specific additional analysis of that data, a compromise that probably would have avoided the court fight in the first place?  I will let you draw your own conclusions, but I do not think it is a Stieg Larsson-worthy mystery.  The answer is almost certainly not:  Because they are confident that the peer review process already rendered their published results beyond reproach. 

So much for the mighty wizard of peer review.  Pay no attention to that creaky old self-perpetuating system behind the curtain.


3 responses to “Unhealthful News 38 – More on the limits of peer review, Karolinska edition

  1. Along similar lines of disingenuous peer review, this seems beyond belief:


    And is wel worth a read as are the commentaries here:


    and here:


    Slightly O/T so apologies, but very relevant to the peer review process.

  2. Wcoaphorse, Yes, the fights over publishing, conventional wisdom, etc. re climate change are interesting, and may have some parallels. They are particularly interesting to me because I find it difficult to assess for myself whether there really are parallels. That is, I know that there are many claims about censorship and cooking the results, and my experiences leave me inclined to believe that some of them are true. On the other hand, based on the attention I have given the issue, I find myself just having to choose who to believe — I do not have confidence in my own assessments based on what I have learned. I know enough to know that there are claims that are so flatly contradictory that someone is clearly wrong (or both sides are wrong in their stated certainty). I would like to make a study of the issue to see if I can figure out who to believe, much as I am trying to provide here.

    Also on a parallel topic, but not worthy of a whole post, so I will put it here: There is a flurry of attention to the report by a social psychologist at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology that the field shuts out anyone who is not “liberal” (self defined). See what John Tierney wrote about it here:
    The topic becomes interesting in that field's jargon, with Tierney reporting social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” and that those values are not the science itself. I think that health research is probably too big to have much tribalism going on (though schools of public health definitely have that characteristic). I am inclined to not think the “sacred values” aspect applies — the flaws in health research are more about institutionalized sloppiness than about any particular set of worldly values. Of course, in individual areas the “health promotion”-types actively damage the science and anyone who gets in their way in pursuit of their worldly goals, but they are not really part of the science community (though the press does not know this).

  3. Pingback: More anti-THR junk science from UCSF, the new Karolinska | Anti-THR Lies and related topics

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