By David Tuller, DrPH
Today I received an e-mail from Professor Roger Jones, editor of British Journal of General Practice. I’ve been nudging him to correct a false statement in a 2017 editorial about the cost of so-called “medically unexplained symptoms” to the UK National Health Service. The false statement involved a misquotation of a key statistic from a seminal 2010 paper. Professor Jones had promised to make the correction two weeks ago, so I sent him a reminder on Sunday.
He has now let me know that the correction is in process even though it is not yet visible to readers of the website. Here’s what he wrote:
“Don’t worry, this is all in hand. It takes a while because it’s not a simple case of updating a webpage; we rely on third parties to update the xml and reprocess the article, and Pubmed etc will only make the correction once the print notice has been published. The print notice will appear in the July BJGP, and the online correction will be completed before the end of this month.”
I have spent a lot of time pressuring people to correct their mistakes. I have sometimes used blunt language in advancing my arguments. Professor Jones is doing the right thing here, and I want to thank him for that. I doubt the correction will include the full scope of what I suggested, including an in-depth explanation for how this all happened and why the lead author, Professor Carolyn Chew-Graham, did not respond to an e-mail I sent her in January pointing out the error. Nonetheless, anyone reading the article in future will read a version that accurately cites Bermingham et al, the 2010 study that sought to calculate the costs of MUS.
Making corrections when needed is part of the job description of being an editor. Yet as I have come to learn, some editors at major UK journals do not appear to take that part of the job description seriously when it comes to these domains of inquiry. I very much appreciate that Professor Jones is choosing to act in this case. As I try to persuade other editors and authors to correct similar misquotations of the same 2010 article, it will be helpful to be able to point to Professor Jones’ positive example.
In contrast to the resolution of this matter with BJGP, the situation with the Lightning Process paper continues to defy all reason. The failure of the relevant research and editorial oversight systems to address the problems in the conduct and reporting of the study, published in 2017 in the BMJ journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, represents a breach of the professional and ethical obligations of all involved. (That’s not even addressing the decision to conduct the study in the first place.)
In this Bristol University study, an experienced team of investigators recruited more than half of the participants before trial registration, swapped outcomes based on the early results, and then wrote up the paper as if it were a prospective trial with pre-selected outcome measures. In doing all this, the investigators violated core methodological principles of scientific research. By providing a high-profile showcase for this disastrous piece of work, BMJ has granted legitimacy to an intervention designed by a Tarot healer and aura expert. To date, the journal and the university have refused to acknowledge the obvious: the reported findings cannot be taken at face value.
This study must be retracted before the BMJ and Bristol seals of approval encourage even more parents to enroll their kids in the Lightning Process. It’s a shame that the stewards of these respected institutions are choosing to tarnish their brands in this manner.