Monday, April 8, 2013
When Is A Medical Study Reliable? It's Getting Harder To Tell.
Whether you are new to my blog or a faithful reader, you should know of one of my favorite made-up Latin sayings, which is Caveat Lector, “Let the reader beware.” You may think my railing against the written word conveys a certain level of paranoia about the attempts of others to mislead us by giving inaccurate and misleading reports. If so, the old rephrase, “just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean they are not out to get you,” comes to mind.
So it is bittersweet to share an article that appears in today's New York Times, titled Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too). I say bittersweet because it is sweet that I can offer confirmation of the need for one to be circumspect when reviewing scientific studies, and even more diligent when reading stories prefaced on such studies. On the other hand, it is bitter because of the invasion of baseless Journals offering worthless studies that can only further exacerbate the degree of confusion of the average person as to what advice to follow and which to ignore.
The Times article states in reference to scientists being duped into presenting at a conference that feigned legitimacy, “Those scientists had stumbled into a parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously titled conferences and journals that sponsor them. Many of the journals and meetings have names that are nearly identical to those of established, well-known publications and events.
Steven Goodman, a dean and professor of medicine at Stanford and the editor of the journal Clinical Trials, which has its own imitators, called this phenomenon “the dark side of open access,” the movement to make scholarly publications freely available.
The number of these journals and conferences has exploded in recent years as scientific publishing has shifted from a traditional business model for professional societies and organizations built almost entirely on subscription revenues to open access, which relies on authors or their backers to pay for the publication of papers online, where anyone can read them.
Open access got its start about a decade ago and quickly won widespread acclaim with the advent of well-regarded, peer-reviewed journals like those published by the Public Library of Science, known as PLoS. Such articles were listed in databases like PubMed, which is maintained by the National Library of Medicine, and selected for their quality.
But some researchers are now raising the alarm about what they see as the proliferation of online journals that will print seemingly anything for a fee [bold added for emphasis]. They warn that non-experts doing online research will have trouble distinguishing credible research from junk [bold added for emphasis]. “Most people don’t know the journal universe,” Dr. Goodman said. “They will not know from a journal’s title if it is for real or not.”
One ambitious soul has taken to creating a list of dubious journals. According to the Times, "Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, has developed his own blacklist of what he calls “predatory open-access journals.” There were 20 publishers on his list in 2010, and now there are more than 300. He estimates that there are as many as 4,000 predatory journals today, at least 25 percent of the total number of open-access journals.”
Folks, it is getting tough out there for credentialed scientists and legitimate doctors to know which Journals to trust. I can only imagine the pain for those less educated. The proliferation of misinformation is growing, creating a crisis of confidence regarding reliable scientific studies, even for the more savvy among us.
One of the readers of my blog, named Helen, likes to respond every so often to something I wrote. She will often share what she believes to be "facts.” She is undoubtedly an avid reader because she will commonly refer to one source of information or another. Try as I may to convince her that the facts she offers are often inaccurate, that her sources may be questionable, and therefore her information, unreliable, she insists that she is right and our disagreement is merely a difference of opinion. I hope the story in the Times sounds a cautionary alarm for Helen that just because someone publishes something somewhere, it doesn't mean it is reliable.
For the rest of my readers, I promise that I will try to stick to the facts. I say that with the caveat that it is getting harder to know what the facts are when misinformation seems to be dropping like bombs during a blitzkrieg. So Helen if you are reading this, stop pretending that you know "the facts” because you read them somewhere on the internet. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “don't take advice from a health website, you could die from a misprint.”