By David Tuller, DrPH
This week I’ve been taking some days for family stuff. But I have a minor victory to report. After a series of e-mails with the British Journal of General Practice about a false statement concerning the cost of “medically unexplained symptoms” to the UK National Health Service, the editor has agreed to make a correction.
The false statement was that MUS among working-age people accounts for 11% of the total NHS budget rather than 10% of the amount spent solely on that age group, as reported in a 2010 study. Proponents for the expansion of programs like Improving Access to Psychological Therapies have repeatedly misquoted the 2010 study, Bermingham et al, in advancing their preferred public policy goals. (To be clear, I am not endorsing the 2010 study’s findings–just expressing concern that the reported findings were inaccurately cited.)
Professor Roger Jones initially suggested that it wasn’t worth bothering with a correction because the referenced data were ten years old–even though his journal had quoted the statistic just two years ago. He also asked me to send in one or two “short sentences” for consideration for publication in the journal. I declined this invitation and pointed out that it was not my responsibility to correct mistakes his journal had published. That responsibility falls solely to the authors and the journal.
Today, after a silence of more than a week following my last message, Professor Jones sent me the following e-mail:
“We are making the correction now – the online version of the editorial will be corrected, and a print correction note will be linked online to the editorial.”
Now that’s not much. But getting these people to back down on anything is a start.
I sent the following note back to Professor Jones.
Dear Professor Jones–
Thank you for your response. You had previously suggested that it likely wasn’t worth the bother because the data were ten years old, so I am pleased you have reconsidered your position. I am also pleased you have taken it upon yourself to issue the correction rather than relying on me to send in one or two “short sentences” to be considered for publication, as you had also suggested.
From my perspective, a proper correction would also include some explanation for how this misreading of Bermingham et al occurred and why it was not noticed by anyone involved in the peer-review and publication process. In addition, I would urge you to include an explanation for why Professor Chew-Graham did not respond to this issue when I wrote her in January and informed her that I planned to seek a correction from the journal. Finally, given the repeated misquoting of this data point by Professor Chew-Graham and other MUS experts, it would be appropriate for BJGP to invite a guest editorial discussing the issue and the potentially harmful impacts of promoting public health policies based on inaccurate numbers.
Given the public health policy implications of this matter, I am cc-ing the original group on my response to you.
David Tuller, DrPH
Senior Fellow in Public Health and Journalism
Center for Global Public Health
School of Public Health
University of California, Berkeley