By Jefferey Jaxen
A new Washington Post ‘perspective’ piece concedes that, “Shoddy work often makes it past peer reviewers, while excellent research has been shot down. Peer reviewers often fail to detect bad research, conflicts of interest and corporate ghostwriting.“
Making legitimate points that would have been labeled ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘misinformation’ by mainstream media outlets in years past, the Washington Post piece continues, “Meanwhile, bad actors exploit the process for professional or financial gain, leveraging peer review to mislead decision-makers.“
The ‘gold standard’ facade has been continually exposed for decades throughout several industries and specialties despite regulatory agencies still using the word and idea to build an often false scientific consensus.
Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, in the NY Review of Books, January 15, 2009, “Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption” wrote:
“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.
Richard Smith, who edited the British Medical Journal for more than a decade, said publicly in 2015 that there was no evidence that peer review was a good method of detecting errors and claimed that “most of what is published in journals is just plain wrong or nonsense.” With evidence to back up his statements, he went on to boldly proclaim, “In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt their data to fit their preferred theory of the world...If peer review was a drug it would never get on the market because we have lots of evidence of its adverse effects and don’t have any evidence of its benefit,” He then wrote this headline-making conclusion at the time:
“It’s time to slaughter the sacred cow.”
Fast-forwarding to recent times, a 2018 New York Times investigative piece discovered the dean of Yale’s medical school, the director of a cancer center in Texas, and the president of the most prominent society of cancer doctors were among those “who have failed in recent years to report their financial relationships with pharmaceutical and health care companies when their studies are published in medical journals.”
Beyond suggesting a tarnished ‘gold standard’ moniker, The Washington Post goes further admitting, “Peer review has also sometimes stymied important research. Senior scientists…can shoot down articles that conflict with their own views. As a result, peer review can act as a shield to protect the status quo and suppress research viewed as radical or contrary to the established perspectives of referees.”
The idea of industry-directed science, rampant conflicts of interest, and the death of the ‘sacred cow’ of peer-reviewed research appears to be permeating mainstream consciousness. Where do we go from here? Is there a solution?
The recently formed Institute For Scientific Freedom is signaling a common sense direction for science and medicine to consider. At its inaugural meeting and lecture series in Copenhagen director Peter Gøtzsche, MD took the stage and laid out the mission statement of the organization. The institute is working towards a goal for science to be free from financial interest, for results to be published as soon as possible and made freely accessible, and to allow scientific data and study protocols to be freely accessible so others can do their own analyses.
Science has reached a crucial point with the public now collectively becoming painfully aware of its shortcomings. Will a move toward greater transparency, away from its gatekeepers, conflicts, and poor-practices, succeed?