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there's journals, & then there's journals...

Recently I read an article in the local paper that made me think about the hierarchy of research journals. (The story itself is about a piece of research suggesting that carbohydrates can be addictive & this is why some people can't stop eating them. This isn't within my area of expertise & I have yet to read the paper itself, so I'm not going to comment on that here, beyond saying that this is likely to be a provocative finding given that our bodies rely on carbohydrates as their main source of energy.)

The first point I'd like to make is that there are journals, & then there are journals. They have a hierarchy of their own. In the sciences, top-notch research gets published in journals like Science and Nature; in medicine in might be the Lancet or the British Medical Journal. If your paper gets through their rigorous systems of peer review, then it's a good piece of work indeed. This doesn't mean it won't get mauled by those who read it, but it does mean that it's a good solid piece of scientific research.

The research that's the focus of the newspaper story was published in a journal called Medical Hypotheses. Its website explains:

Medical Hypotheses takes a deliberately different approach to review. Most contemporary practice tends to discriminate against radical ideas that conflict with current theory and practice. Medical Hypotheses will publish radical ideas, so long as they are coherent and clearly expressed. Furthermore, traditional peer review can oblige authors to distort their true views to satisfy referees, and so diminish authorial responsibility and accountability. In Medical Hypotheses, the authors' responsibility for the integrity, precision and accuracy of their work is paramount. The editor sees his role as a 'chooser', not a 'changer': choosing to publish what are judged to be the best papers from those submitted.

From Charlton BG. Peer usage versus peer review BMJ 2007; 335: 451 :- "Traditionally, editorial review is the main alternative to peer review. A scientist editor or editorial team applies a sieve, with varying degrees of selectivity, to research submissions. Strictly, this process should not attempt to predict whether ideas and facts are "true," because truth can be established only in retrospect. Instead, editorial selection works within constraints of subject matter on the basis of factors such as potential importance and interest, clarity and appropriateness of expression, and broad criteria of scientific plausibility. Even probably untrue papers may be judged worth publishing if they contain aspects (ideas, perspectives, data) that are potentially stimulating to the development of future science.

In other words, if a paper's well-written & puts forward a 'radical' point of view, it may well be published here. There's nothing wrong with that by itself (& in fact some very good material has first seen the light of day in Medical Hypotheses) - & the carbohydrate story is certainly both interesting & topical - but the lack of peer review does worry me a bit. And 'radical' ideas can actually be published in the mainstream journals: Nature in particular makes something of a habit of it.

What concerns me more - & this is nothing to do with the research paper itself - is the comment in the website about 'truth'. Science doesn't claim to give the 'truth'. What it can offer is the best possible explanation for the body of information currently available - an explanation that may well be modified or overturned as new data come to hand. Rather than 'untrue', 'wrong' or 'incorrect' might be better ways to describe papers that turn out to add little or nothing to that explanation. And in fact, there are many instances where what was viewed as a good, accurate explanation 20 years ago has since been rejected or overturned as new material comes to light. The 'one-gene-one-protein' concept, for example, or the idea - current when I was at school - that Ramapithecus was a direct human ancestor. That's the nature of science,  & it's something that doesn't come across well in the media with their focus on immediacy & 'the latest/last word in...' And this in turn probably contributes to the fairly common perception that scientists can't make their minds up (& the corollary, which asks 'so why should we trust them?').

But the thing that annoyed me - at the personal level - about the newspaper story was the suggestion that the results of this piece of research mean that we should have 'more regulation'. Sorry, what? Regulations controlling the carbohydrate content of particular foods? Or prohibiting the sale/consumption of some foods in or near schools (well, we already do that, with varying degrees of success depending on parental support)? Or regulating how much of something we can buy or cook or eat? Two words spring to mind here: 'education' & 'personal responsibility'.

OK, that was three words :-)

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