by Carl V Phillips
Ok, that is not exactly what they said. But it was seriously so damn close to that it is not really an exaggeration. This appears in today’s editorial by the journal’s editors, Richard O’Connor, Coral Gartner, Lisa Henriksen, Sarah Hill, Joaquin Barnoya, Joanna Cohen, and Ruth E Malone, with the bizarre title, “Blog fog? Using rapid response to advance science and promote debate”.
There has already been a fair bit written about this today, but there is oh so much more to say. The basic upshot, and what has been getting the most attention, is the declaration that all debate about the papers in Tobacco Control must take place in the pages of Tobacco Control, specifically the publisher’s (BMJ’s) “rapid response” system. (For those who do not know, this is an aggressively-moderated online letter-to-the-editor type system, that requires prior approval and which I would guess refuses to post far more comments than it allows to appear.) Or as they put it,
the growing use of personal blogs to criticise published articles has led us to reflect on appropriate ways of engaging in such debate
I am not even sure where to start on that. So I won’t. I will focus on going beyond the silly thesis statement (or, rather, thesis demand). I will direct you to Michael Siegel, who called this unprecedented (quite possibly true) and “religious-like” behavior. I suspect he really meant “institutionalized-church-like” behavior, but I get the point. However, I would instead use the analogy of a government that declares the press to be an enemy of the people. For more comments on their main demand you can go to the paper and check out the Altmetric count of Twitter comments; right now it records 34, and if you click on that you will see that every last one of them is ridiculing the authors’ demand.
Gee, no wonder they think free speech is the enemy.
But it turns out that if you look beyond the main declaration in this short editorial, it actually gets even more embarrassing for them.
While the editors make decisions about what is and is not published in this forum, these decisions are made with expert advice and balancing many factors-–—including research quality, contributions to the field, innovation, international impact and policy relevance. [sic: yes that hyphen, em-dash, en-dash combination was really in the original publication; always a pleasure to see such careful editorial standards]
Despite careful review and selection procedures, no journal can guarantee that everything published is accurate, or that all readers will agree with the authors’ interpretation of findings.
Gee, y’think? The mere fact that they thought they had to explain this to their readers says a lot about both their hubris and their faith in their core readers’ intelligence. But, you might ask, what does this have to do with where it is “appropriate” to express doubt or criticism? (The answer, of course, is: nothing.)
Recent comments posted on some personal blogs impugn the objectivity of Tobacco Control and its reviewers, questioning our motives and the veracity of peer review.
This is almost accurate. The only error is referring to professional scholarly blogs (I trust this one, Clive Bates’s, Brad Rodu’s, and Chris Snowdon’s are among those they are whining about it) as “personal”. It is almost as if these authors were motivated to try to belittle anyone who disagrees with them.
But, anyway, their point seems to be that anyone who writes such questions (ha! — shall we just go ahead and say characterizations) should be forbidden from doing so? Or, more specifically, that they should feel obliged to submit them to the journal’s rapid response system, where they will never appear.
The editors take complaints about scientific rigour very seriously and, when indicated, we undertake further internal review of papers and peer-review reports to ensure appropriate processes were followed and the decision to publish is defensible. Our role is to facilitate the processes of peer review, transparency and accountability which underpin the legitimacy and independence of academic research.
I am not aware of a single paper from Tobacco Control ever being retracted by the journal, or even a major erratum being published. It may have happened sometime. But given how many of their papers are identified by commentators as having full-on fatal flaws, “sometime” is hardly an endorsement of their “appropriate processes”. And transparency??? In case any authors of the editorial are reading this, here is a link to the relevant definition of that word.
Now here is where it gets really good:
It is not the place of journal editors to defend the detailed content of research articles that are published in the journal, since this reflects the work of the relevant authors.
This is a statement that is so obviously true, if read literally, that only the subtext matters. That subtext is, “we feel the need to mention this because we know that we could not possibly defend the legitimacy of many of the papers we choose to publish.” This is the bit that inspired the title and first observation of this post.
Ultimately, the author is the guarantor of his or her work and is entitled to be aware of and respond to critiques of that work, particularly when those critiques question accuracy or scientific integrity.
I know exclamations like this are getting a bit old here, but: Seriously? Entitled?
First: If someone wants to know what is being said about him online, particularly by the handful of scholarly critics of this particular literature, there are dozens of ways to do it. (Again, I am nothing if not helpful: Here is a link on how to set up a Google alert. I find it works quite well. See, e.g., my response to a pathetic attack on me and President Trump — yes really — by a hack reporter at the Washington Post; do you think I found that by accident because I was browsing the Post?) A particularly good way to learn about the criticisms is to simply not block all the people who tag you on Twitter with links to the criticisms. Given that these people do block all their critics, one might conclude that they do not actually want their “entitled” awareness of the criticism.
Second: Um, no. If someone publishes something, they are entitled to nothing. If I want to criticize it, or question whether the authors are even aware of how things work in a free society, I am free to publish it in this blog, or send it in a private email to one or a hundred people, or talk about it on the phone, or whatever. It is almost like the editors of this journal are not even aware of how things work in a free society.
They next write:
Thus the proper place to pose questions and debate conclusions from research published in Tobacco Control is directly to the authors, in the form of a Rapid Response.
The fact that they think the previous point flows, with a “thus”, into this conclusion explains a lot about the quality of the papers they see fit to publish.
The participation of scientists and scholars in peer review is critical to advance science, since this is how any errors of concern could be identified and addressed.
Credit to them for admitting “could be” rather than claiming “are”. However, they are still wrong, as I have made clear in my “What is peer review, really” series here.
They then rant for a few sentences about critics not being willing to review papers:
Occasionally, an individual who has written a postpublication critique has declined invitations to review similar papers prepublication.
I will just point out that I have never once been asked by Tobacco Control to review a paper even though, I will immodestly state, I am probably the best reviewer they could get (in terms of expertise in subject matter, research methodology, and scientific inference, as well as being a very careful and thorough reviewer) for quite a few of their papers. Oh, and I would do it.
As noted above, the Rapid Response process provides a forum for exploring such issues. In contrast, placing personal blog posts or social media messages complaining about a study, alleging flaws in the review process, or making ad hominem attacks on authors or editors do not advance the field or allow an appropriate scientific dialogue and debate. This is especially so for topics that are controversial, where discussion of alternative views about the interpretation of findings would be beneficial for readers to view alongside the published article.
The projection is strong with this one. Seriously? (sorry) Ad hominem attacks are their wheelhouse, not their critics’. I would be hard pressed to identify a single ad hominem attack on the Tobacco Control cabal from any of their critics. And what is their basis for claiming that posting a scientific critique on a blog does not advance the scientific debate? And their basis for suggesting that posting it on their heavily-censored forum does? As you might guess, they offer no such bases.
Now the “alongside the published article” point has a bit of merit on its face, if you are oblivious to how the game is played. They are not going to post anything that demonstrates that the paper is junk and their review process is therefore crap. Well…ok, I don’t know that for sure. So let’s test it. The next time I write a post pointing out the fatal flaws in a Tobacco Control paper (and I really only have time to address the full-on fatal flaws), I will also submit the core content to their rapid response system and let you know the result. Also, I hereby encourage my readers (sorry — I don’t have time) to go back through my archives and find criticisms of Tobacco Control papers and submit the core substance as rapid responses to those papers. Please give me a citation and let me know what happens.
But I have saved the best for last:
As a result of discussion about these issues, the Tobacco Control editorial team has now established a policy that editors will not respond to external blog posts or social media messages about specific studies.
The Tobacco Control editors have never once responded to any of my criticisms of a paper they published. I can assure you that I would not have censored anything they wrote if they did (an assurance that they are not offering to us). I pay pretty close attention to the other three aforementioned scholarly blogs that frequently offer sophisticated, accurate scientific criticisms of their papers, and I have never once seen a response there either. I cannot be so sure there have never been any, but I suspect there have not. (With apologies: I do not mean to ignore those of you who blog more broadly and/or have a more, um, footloose approach to your criticisms, but also sometimes offer equally valid scientific criticisms of particular papers (Jim, Dick, Lee, Fergus, Michael, Steven, et al.). I just cannot claim that I read the comments you get. But I am pretty sure you have had the same experience, and a few tweets I have seen confirm that.)
So basically this statement is the equivalent of putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying “lalalala I can’t hear you”. They are declaring that they will now pretend that the reason that they do not respond is not because they could not possibly win the argument, and that trying to argue would further demonstrate the accuracy of the criticisms, but because it is their policy. Never mind the fact that they never responded before.
In fact, the only such responses by any of these authors that I have ever seen are Ruth Malone’s tweets. Which I have to say are quite delightful. I will be sorry to see them go. Indeed, I cannot help but think that the entire purpose of this stated policy, and indeed of the entire editorial, was for the other editors — lacking the balls to just come right out and say it to her — to force Malone to cease her embarrassing tweets which, indeed, do a good job of demonstrating the accuracy of the criticisms of Tobacco Control.