Deeply flawed research into cancer wonder drug accepted by science journals 'despite obvious errors'
Investigation reveals 300 online journals have agreed to publish the flawed research
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Thursday 03 October 2013
Deeply flawed research apparently demonstrating the anti-cancer properties of a wonder drug extracted from lichen has been accepted for publication by a majority of “open access” science journals despite the study’s obvious errors, an investigation has revealed.
Most of the 300 online journals that claimed to check each study’s credibility before publication have agreed to publish the flawed research even though the errors should have been obvious to any expert asked to review the work, it is claimed.
Open access is a relatively new form of science publishing that does not rely on expensive subscriptions or printed material, but asks scientists to pay an administrative fee if their study is accepted for publication on the journal’s website.
David Willetts, the science minister, has actively supported open-access publishing on the grounds that it enables individuals and small companies to read the publicly-funded scientific research that they have helped to support through their taxes, without having to pay for the expensive subscriptions of conventional scientific publishing houses.
However, in a “sting operation” carried out by a journalist working for Science, a subscription-only journal, many open-access publications appear to be ready to publish obviously flawed research without the rigorous peer-review expected for science publishing.
More than 300 versions of the “wonder drug” study were sent out to various open-access journals listed on the internet and more than half of them accepted the scientific paper without noticing its fatal errors in scientific methodology and ethically-dubious statements, says Science.
The study for instance claimed that the wonder drug extracted from lichen makes cancer cells more susceptible to radiation but anyone reading the scientific methods would have realised that the effect could just as well have been caused by the alcohol used to dissolve the substance.
John Bohannon, the journalist who organised the sting over a period of 10 months, said that the findings showed just how easy it was to circumvent the usually tough peer-review procedures that science journals should employ to weed out flawed research.
“The goal was to create a credible but mundane scientific paper, one with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable,” Mr Bohannon said.
The cod paper described two simple tests. One involved seeing whether cancer cells grow more slowly in a test tube in the presence of increasing concentrations of the lichen molecule.
The other involved exposing the cells to radiation in order to simulate radiotherapy, to see if the wonder drug increases the sensitivity of the cancer cells to radiation.
Mr Bohannon said that one glance at the paper’s “materials and methods” should have explained the outlandish results and if these had been missed then the paper’s obvious ethical problems, such as advocating the bypassing of clinical trials, should have raised alarm bells.
However, such was the rush to publication, and charge the fictional scientist the appropriate administrative fees, more than half of the on-line journals were ready to accept the bogus paper without serious questions.
“About one-third of the journals targeted in this sting are based in India – overtly or as revealed by the location of editors and bank accounts – making it the world’s largest base for open-access publishing; and among the India-based journals in my sample, 64 accepted the fatally flawed papers and only 15 rejected it,” Mr Bohannon said.
Open-access journals operating on the internet, rather than being the panacea some people have suggested, are operating like the “wild west” of scientific publishing, he said.
“From humble and idealistic beginnings a decade ago, open-access scientific journals have mushroomed into a global industry, driven by author publication fees rather than traditional subscriptions,” Mr Bohannon said.
“Most of the players are murky. The identity and location of the journals’ editors, as well as the financial workings of their publishers, are often purposefully obscured,” he said.
What flaws are there in the research?
Claim: The effect of the wonder drug is “dose dependent”, meaning that the higher the concentration of the drug, the more lethal it is to cancer cells.
Truth: The wonder drug was dissolved in a buffer solution of strong alcohol whereas the “control” was not. So the higher concentrations of alcohol, rather than the drug, could have explained the cell-killing properties.
Claim: Cancer cells exposed to the wonder drug were more likely to be killed by radiation than unexposed cancer cells, indicating a potential use in radiotherapy.
Truth: In fact, a quick look at the methodology would show that the control cells (not exposed to the wonder drug) were never exposed to any radiation at all so the observed effect was nothing more than standard inhibition of cell growth by radiation.
Claim: The paper concludes by stating that the wonder drug is effective against cancer in animals and humans and is promising new treatment for combination radio-chemo therapy.
Truth: The study is only based on cells growing in a test tube with no animal studies and certainly no evidence that could bypass clinical trials in humans.
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