Sunday, September 25, 2011

Right-Wingnut Randall Hoven: Stupid, Liar, or Lazy? Part III

I dealt with two of the gross lies about vaccination, and medical research being spread by Randall Hoven, writing for the ironically named right-wing rag, “American Thinker.” Right-Wingnut Randall Hoven next makes the asinine assertion that,
“Do you know how many medical research papers were withdrawn from publication due to major errors or outright fraud in the last decade? The answer is 788.

That is, hundreds of medical research papers have errors so egregious that the papers had to be withdrawn completely. And half or more of the rest might have serious errors.

This pushed several of my out-rage buttons. First, the medical literature is very different from the normal science literature. In a scientific publication the originality and novelty of the research is hugely important. It is considered entirely unprofessional, and unethical to repeat a publication, or “self-plagiarize.” So, a research project will have the following minimal sets of publications, 1) a technical, or progress report to the funding source, 2) one or more conference Abstracts, 3) a journal publication, 4) a book chapter. Until you get to step 3) a journal, all the others are considered “prepublication,” and are not given much academic or scientific credit. Anyone publishing the same data, with the same analysis more than once will either be rejected from publication, or at least privately disparaged as a “publication whore.” Most large journals have specific instructions on prepublication. Since the number of publications a young professor has weighs so heavily toward their retention, or promotion, we used to joke (darkly) about the academic SPDS, or Smallest Publishable Data Set.

The medical literature is very different. This has two reasons. The first is that there are many more medical publications than for the sciences. This is because medical device manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies spend many millions of dollars each year on advertisements. These millions of dollars underwrite many hundreds of magazines, and thousands of editors. Something has to fill in the pages between the ads, and that something is medical research. The second difference is that the medical literature serves as the post graduation source for clinical education. These magazines, visits from drug vendors, and “continuing medical education” requirements are how daily practice physicians, nurses, and all other adjunct clinicians learn what current practices are. This creates a tremendous market for medical research articles. This also means that for many medical magazines, the readers are not trained as scientists and are far more trusting of a table of statistics than are general scientists. So, if there is a paper circulated in the medical literature with multiple authors to multiple journals, and at least part of the data is bad, then there could be five or six papers that become “contaminated.”

The link Hoven gave is to another “PhysOrg” news item, “US scientists significantly more likely to publish fake research” November 16, 2010;
“The study author searched the PubMed database for every scientific research paper that had been withdrawn—and therefore officially expunged from the public record—between 2000 and 2010.

A total of 788 papers had been retracted during this period. Around three quarters of these papers had been withdrawn because of a serious error (545); the rest of the retractions were attributed to fraud (data fabrication or falsification).

There are a few problems here. First, we are given no idea of how important these 788 withdrawn papers are in the grand scheme. Second, there are many reasons a paper might be retracted. Not infrequently, a journal will retract an article because it was plagiarized, and the real authors have complained. The results could be totally acceptable- they probably are- but they were stolen. Then, authors might find that they cannot repeat their own earlier result. This can happen totally innocently. I knew one fellow graduate student who brewed up a potential cancer cure- a real one shot “magic bullet.” Worked great, except the second batch did nothing, and the third batch did nothing. Nothing he tried for the next 2 years worked at all, and then he dropped out of school and was drafted.

And what are these numbers? Consider that in 2010 alone nearly 38,000 papers were published on medical/clinical topics as indexed by PubMed. This turns out to be not too far from an average annual rate. Even for all retracted papers as in the number quoted above, this is barely 20 per 10,000 papers withdrawn for any reason between 2000 and 2010. As we will see below, this is about the same global result found from several independent studies. Mr. Hoven is blowing his mind over a 20/10,000 “crisis.” It turns out to be even smaller, as the rate for deliberate fraud falls to under 2 in ten thousand.

Another problem is that the PhysOrg news item never gave a valid citation. Where did these numbers come from? This is a common problem with this source, and a competent ‘reporter,’ which Mr. Hoven is clearly not, would refuse to use unattributed assertions. A database search of all articles published in the Journal of Medical Ethics revealed only one potential study with the same combination of numbers, “Retractions in the scientific literature: do authors deliberately commit research fraud?” J Med Ethics 2011;37:113-117 doi:10.1136/jme.2010.038125

There are, ironically, methodological issues that I would have as a reviewer of Dr. Steen's articles. For example, the author R. Grant Steen was the only person (apparently) to have read the articles and retraction notices. It is only his opinion as to the validity of the retraction. Plus, of all the reasons a paper might be retracted, he split the entire list in either “fraud,” or “other error.” And in a re-analysis of his own data, Steen discovered that just “… two repeat offender authors were responsible for 14% of all articles retracted for fraud over the last decade.” (“Retractions in the scientific literature: is the incidence of research fraud increasing?” J Med Ethics 2011;37:249-253 Published Online First: 24 December 2010 doi:10.1136/jme.2010.040923). I think it is worth pointing out that in this reanalysis, the number of retracted papers had also dropped to 742.

And, the author of this study, R. Grant Steen, has published five articles from the same data in the last year; four of them in the same magazine; the Journal of Medical Ethics. This is a perfect example of how multiple papers are published in the medical literature from a single piece of research. Dr. Steen is also the President of a private company “Medical Communication Consultants (MCC)” that is “… a full-service, medical writing firm designed to meet the needs of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.” (From their corporate website: ). So, in addition to a noble desire to advance knowledge, Dr. Steen has a very legitimate goal of furthering the interests of his company.

Motivated by the reports of medical literature fraud published by Dr. Steen, Prof. T. A. Abinandanan conducted a study of retracted papers from the PubMed index for the same years. Abinandanan found the misconduct rate from India, his homeland to be 44 per one hundred thousand papers, as opposed to a global average of 17/100,000. (“Publish and perish” VT Yadugiri, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 101, NO. 4, 25 AUGUST 2011 477). That’s correct, 1.7 frauds per ten thousand publications. And now recall that Dr. Steen found that “… two repeat offender authors were responsible for 14% of all articles retracted for fraud over the last decade.”

There was a considerably stronger paper on medical literature article retractions that was also recently published by the Journal of Medical Ethics; “Why and how do journals retract articles? An analysis of Medline retractions 1988–2008.” The authors, Elizabeth Wager, Peter Williams use a better data sample from Medline, used a more sensitive evaluation criteria, and were able check each other for rating bias. (J Med Ethics 2011;37:567-570 doi:10.1136/jme.2010.040964). In all, the rated 312 examples of retracted papers out of a total of 870. I’ll quote their Methods, Results and Conclusion directly from the Journal;

Methods: We retrieved all available Medline retractions from 2005 to 2008 and a one-in-three random selection of those from 1988 to 2004. This yielded 312 retractions (from a total of 870). Details of the retraction including the reason for retraction were recorded by two investigators.

Results: Medline retractions have increased sharply since 1980 and currently represent 0.02% of included articles. Retractions were issued by authors (63%), editors (21%), journals (6%), publishers (2%) and institutions (1%). Reasons for retraction included honest error or non-replicable findings (40%), research misconduct (28%), redundant publication (17%) and unstated/unclear (5%). Some of the stated reasons might have been addressed by corrections.

Conclusions: Journals' retraction practices are not uniform. Some retractions fail to state the reason, and therefore fail to distinguish error from misconduct.”

So, to review for Mr. Hoven, the "Crisis" is fewer than 2 fraudulent papers per one hundred thousand. But, you idiot, YOU wrote,
That is, hundreds of medical research papers have errors so egregious that the papers had to be withdrawn completely. And half or more of the rest might have serious errors.

Where did "half or more of the rest might have serious errors," come from? RIGHT! That came from the other stupid errors you have made.

So, Mr. Hoven concludes that he and his should skip vaccinations, and leave all the associated costs and risks to others because, “We should not be treated like benighted troglodytes for being skeptical of medical "science.”

No, not troglodytes, Mr. Hoven- you should be treated like lazy, stupid, selfish, dishonest parasites.

What a dumb ass!

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