Debunking Bad Scientific Publishing

Frequently, the anti-vaxxer community rallies around lousy science to support their beliefs. This isn’t limited strictly to anti-vaxxers. Many other pseudoscience-following communities will cite poor research to justify their belief system.

Recently I challenged an anti-vaxxer to post a scientific article proving their belief that vaccines cause autism. Same story, different day. They published “Methodological Issues and Evidence of Malfeasance in Research Purporting to Show Thimerosal in Vaccines Is Safe” which might confuse people without a background in how journal publishing and research publishing works. This was not posted in an actual medical journal that the community considers high quality based on a low impact score. More on that later.

This is an excellent example for discussing one of the darker sides of academia: the predatory journal.

What is Academic Publishing and How Does It Work?

This might be pretty boring for most people, so be warned. In academia, there is a drive to publish in highly “impactful” journals. Whenever I said “actual medical journal” a little bit ago, it’s essential to understand what that means. Great science journals (like Nature) and utter trash journals have no standards in the academic world. Whenever we talk about “peer-review,” we’re talking about the cross-referencing system whereby articles in other journals reference articles in one journal. In this way, we see a “consensus” form based on the summation of discourse on a topic. The “impact” of a given journal is based on how frequently articles in that journal are cited by other researchers writing papers in other journals.

The best journals only publish the best articles that get the most exposure and the most citations, making them more impactful. The impact is an overall score indicative of how often other researchers use the article as baseline research.

See? I told you it was a little boring. Anyway, whenever we talk about “the global consensus” on something, we’re talking about the total result of all scientific articles on a given subject reviewed as one single overarching concept. Whenever someone writes a literature review, they review dozens or hundreds of articles on a subject to critique and summarize the overall findings. Literature reviews are reviewed, and the cycle follows like an ouroboros except with less snake-eating-its-tail and more researchers-writing-about-researchers-writing-about-researchers.

What Types of Publishing Is There?

At the high end of scientific research is the meta-review. These reviews form the backbones of an entire field of study. These combine multiple meta-analyses from numerous studies into one coherent discussion. Meta-reviews published in high-ranking journals are the cream of the crop for the best human understanding of that topic. These reviews should look at all of the data holistically without cherry-picking. Quality of evidence matters.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are individual studies. These studies describe the results of an experiment. A separate study presents new research that supports or rejects a hypothesis. Studies are repeated in various ways to form a set of studies. These studies are all examined in meta-analyses of multiple studies in the field.

Why Do People Pay Predatory Journals?

Why would anyone do this, and how does this relate to the meta-review? The publisher of this review has been previously listed as a “predatory journal” because they charged publishing fees to authors while not providing the services of legitimate journals. The point of these predatory journals is to charge exorbitant fees to publish poor-quality research that legitimate journals have rejected. They also prey on new researchers in developing nations that may not be able to conduct high-quality research but are still seeking to publish regardless.

It’s difficult to explain to a non-academic, but the academic world has a saying of “Publish or Die.” Publishing studies is what researchers do. This is what gets you funding. Those that cannot produce impactful research do not get funding to continue their investigation. Those that have high-quality research get more funding to continue researching. Someone who will gain an appreciation for free-market economics would likely appreciate this system. If someone builds a study that is rejected by all legitimate journals for either inaccurate conclusions or low-quality work, they’ve effectively wasted that time. As a result, some turn to predatory journals to at least get the research in “a” journal even if it has zero standards.

Now that we’ve established a background for how predatory journals work let’s look at the actual study published by a journal that has been listed as a predatory journal.

Example Study

BioMed Research International is the actual journal that published this article. They have a low impact factor which indicates that no one often cites them. Since this is a vaccine study, you would expect this study to be published in an impactful medical journal like Pediatrics or something. Instead, it is in a relatively unknown journal hosted by a corporation that is not anywhere near the medical research hubs of the world.

Next, let’s look at the authors of the study. The first author (primary researcher) does not have any background in vaccines, immunology, virology, microbiology, epidemiology, public health, etc. Not to get into religion, but the first author teaches at a religious college that teaches a religion-based origination of life rather than a scientific one. If you deny evolution, you will have a hard time understanding virology. All of this indicates that the primary researcher has no credentials in vaccines.

Looking at the remaining authors, no one else has a background in the medical field/vaccines other than a nurse. Almost all of her published papers are coauthored by individuals with a long history of suing medical companies and are currently blocked from being used as expert witnesses for vaccine-related injury compensated cases in America. Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that two authors have had legal issues attempting to sell a dangerous cure for autism.

Ok, so we’ve discussed the importance of research quality and journal quality and established that the study’s authors have no background in the field they’re publishing in.

What about the actual writing?
It does not present any original data. It argues against six well-established studies without evidence. One complaint in the study is based on the abstract rather than the entire paper. They misrepresent data and cherry-pick to make a point. The most damning part of this paper is that it does not provide any actual data supporting their conclusions.

Conclusion

Suppose people with little medical training publish in a minor journal with a bad reputation and are not presenting any hard evidence of anything while trying to debunk long-proven studies. In that case, dismissing this study as bad science is a safe bet.

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