So is this peer review?

I get invited to peer review papers for a few journals, and the process is usually well managed by the editors. I have had to recommend outright rejection on rare occasions, and one of those was quite recently. I was sent a manuscript by Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine . I normally regard such review work as confidential, so I won’t identify the author.However I have no compunction in identifying the journal as I have real concerns over this incident. The paper was not about evidence for CAM at all, so my first reaction was, why is it even being considered for this journal? It was actually a historical discourse, attempting to garner credibility for homeopathy by associating it with a prominent historical figure in science. I checked all the claims made in the paper, and found that even the title was factually incorrect. There were many historical errors, distortions, and inaccuracies, all of which I itemised in my review. Some tenuous links with modern science were made, which if believed by the author indicated an understanding of molecular biology that did not even reach secondary school level.

Not only was the title of the paper inappropriate for a journal about evidence, but the content was hardly scholarly and if the errors and inaccuracies were corrected, there would have been virtually nothing left. I recommended rejection with no request to revise.

Yet the editor sent the reviews to the author and asked for a revised manuscript. I was told that I will not be asked to review the revision, without giving a reason.

This raises two main issues. Firstly, my review pointed out errors of fact, which are quite independent from my opinion. Secondly, my experience suggested that the editorial team simply thought, “Oh well, this reviewer didn’t like it so let’s find another one who does”. Publication bias is a problem across all areas of medical science, but it seems to be endemic in CAM journals, which rarely publish negative studies. In this case, they appeared to be planning to publish an irrelevant piece of work which I believe was engineered to put a positive spin on homeopathy yet without providing the slightest jot of scientific evidence.

It later emerged that a colleague of mine had also been invited to review the paper, and like me had recommended rejection. But that review was not on the list that I was sent. My colleague wrote to the editor asking for an explanation. The editor denied all knowledge and said that all such matters were dealt with by the editorial office. Meanwhile I had challenged the editorial office staff, who said they were only administrators and all scientific matters were dealt with by the editor. A potato too hot to handle it seems. The outcome is that the paper has been published, less some of the more ridiculous pseudoscience, but retaining the historical rubbish.

I copied my emails to the Oxford University Press, who publish ECAM, and never got a reply. I also reported the matter to the Committee on Publication Ethics, which also seems to have done nothing whatsoever. So next time you are offered a paper from a peer reviewed journal, remember this story.

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5 Responses

  1. I have slightly edited this post to match the version which will shortly appear in the HealthWatch newsletter. Thus I have deleted all your valuable comments as they don’t relate to the current version. Sorry about that – please feel free to add more comments!

  2. Wouldn’t it have been better to just re-post the revised version as a new post? Apology accepted, but it is rather galling to see the comments disappear permanently.

    • I understand your POV, but there was a particular reason which I’ll be glad to share with you privately – email on its way.

  3. Dear Dr Rose, I am concerned that you contacted COPE but received no response, however I have checked with our Operations Manager and she can find no record of you getting in touch. It’s possible that our lack of response was because we didn’t receive your message. I’d therefore be grateful if you could send it again to
    cope_opsmanager@publicationethics.org
    and cc to me (liz@sideview.demon.co.uk).
    Liz Wager
    Chair, COPE

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