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Can you believe all you read, even in a scientific journal?

Posted: 6 October 2021 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott raises alarming concerns with some scientific literature and asks New Food’s readers – can we always believe what we read in a journal?

chris' corner

How often have you watched or read a news report about something you really know about yourself? Sometimes they are fairly accurate and sometimes quite the opposite. When it comes to the majority of news items, none of us can claim to be total experts in that specific field. We are meant to believe them and trust them all, yet our experiences actually tell us otherwise.

I use this analogy to discuss the rigour of scientific publications. How many times over the past 18 months have we been told to trust scientific evidence? It’s worth saying that I for one have been very supportive of this messaging. Clearly, scientists will have different opinions, and these are based on the evidence they have gathered or have read in the scientific literature.

For those of you who are not familiar with how scientific publications come about, manuscripts are submitted to a wide range of journals and are subject to a peer review process. This can take between three to six months normally, and the end result may well be rejection if the reviewers find some faults which makes the research unsuitable for publication, at least in that particular journal. I know this process very well having been a co-author on nearly 500 such publications.

Over the past few years my confidence in the system has been rocked twice. I read an article published in one of the world’s top journals about food systems and, based on my own knowledge, I have some serious doubts about portions (though not all) of the work. I discussed these with some colleagues, and they had mixed views. It was pointed out that it was in a ‘stellar journal’ that is known to have a very stringent peer review process and the authors came from equally ‘stellar’ academic institutions.

Time would tell if my views were correct or not as other scientists would publish supportive or critical articles about this piece of work. This has started to happen, and my view (a very biased one) is that a number of the things I spotted have been by others too.

But I write this article due to a sense of concern about the rigours of the ‘world leading’ journal I mentioned as the same thing has happened again, and this time it is probably a more extreme example.

Another article was written by a group of very eminent scientists on a very important food theme. The likelihood is that government policies around the world may change based on this work unless it was challenged.

Myself and a number of equally concerned scientists wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of the publishing journal. We didn’t hear back for some time, which is extremely unusual in such circumstances.

Finally, the reply came back to say they would not publish our letter of concern. When we asked for feedback as to why, no response was forthcoming. We decided to send an extended letter detailing our misgivings to another world leading journal, with a request that they would publish it. We received another negative response, but this time the editors informed us that they agreed with the content of our letter and indeed they had even more grievous concerns with the publication.

In all my days as a publishing scientist this response shocked and saddened me more than any other. The only conclusions we could reach is that the original journal is too powerful to take on and/or the illustrious list of authors was also scientifically ‘untouchable’.

So where does this leave things now? We have decided that this is too important a topic to let lie and we will continue to try and find a reputable journal that has the integrity to do the right thing – even if it may cause them difficulties. I hope at some point I can share the original publication and our follow up article with New Food readers and let you all make up your own minds.

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