Publish or be damned

August 3rd, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, mail, media, statistics | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday August 4, 2005
The Guardian

· I have a very long memory. So often with “science by press release”, newspapers will cover a story, even though the scientific paper doesn’t exist, assuming it’s around the corner. In February 2004, the Daily Mail was saying that cod liver oil is “nature’s superdrug”. The Independent wrote: “They’re not yet saying it can enable you to stop a bullet or leap tall buildings, but it’s not far short of that.” These glowing stories were based on a press release from Cardiff University, describing a study looking at the effect of cod liver oil on some enzymes – no idea which – that have something to do with cartilage – no idea what. I had no way of knowing whether the study was significant, valid or reliable. Nobody did, because it wasn’t published. No methods, results, conclusions to appraise. Nothing.

· In 1998 Dr Arpad Pusztai announced through the telly that genetically modified potatoes “caused toxicity to rats”. Everyone was extremely interested in this research. So what had he done in his lab? What were they fed? What had he measured? A year later the paper was published, and it was significantly flawed. Nobody had been able to replicate his data and verify the supposed danger of GM because we hadn’t seen the write-up, the academic paper. How could anyone examine, let alone have a chance to rebut, Pusztai’s claims? Peer review is just the start: then we have open scrutiny, by the scientific community, and independent replication.

· So anyway, I wrote at the time that these cod liver oil people in Cardiff University were jolly irresponsible, that patients would worry, GPs would have no answer for them, and so on ( This week I contacted Cardiff and said: this is what I said last year, now where’s the paper? Prof John Harwood responded through the press office: “Mr Goldacre is quite right in asserting that scientists have to be very certain of their facts before making public statements or publishing data.” I’m a doctor, but it’s good to know we agree. If puzzling.

· “Because of that, Professor Caterson and my laboratory are continuing to work on samples.” Right … “I’m afraid this takes a long time and much longer than journalists or public relations firms often realise. So, I regret he will have to be patient before Professor Caterson or myself are prepared to comment in detail.” How kind. And only slightly patronising. I don’t want them to comment on fish oil. It’s 17 months after “nature’s superdrug”: I want to know where the published paper is.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

5 Responses

  1. amoebic vodka said,

    August 4, 2005 at 11:11 pm

    Maybe the paper got rejected by the journal they sent it to…

    Tee hee.

    Thanks for linking to our site, we hope you enjoyed reading it. Maybe it was your visit that caused our number of readers to go up by 50%*.

    We notice you have fallen victim to WordPress’ evil trick of putting every post in uncategorized by default unless you remember to uncheck the box.

    * from 2 to 3

  2. That Science Coverage We All Hate | Cosmic Variance said,

    September 8, 2005 at 11:00 pm

    […] Oh boy, this is an issue especially close to my heart! Articles about robustly-supported emerging themes and ideas would be more stimulating, of course, than most single experimental results, and these themes are, most people would agree, the real developments in science. But they emerge over months and several bits of evidence, not single rejiggable press releases. Often, a front page science story will emerge from a press release alone, and the formal academic paper may never appear, or appear much later, and then not even show what the press reports claimed it would ( […]

  3. wayscj said,

    November 21, 2009 at 8:15 am

    ed hardy ed hardy
    ed hardy clothing ed hardy clothing
    ed hardy shop ed hardy shop
    christian audigier christian audigier
    ed hardy cheap ed hardy cheap
    ed hardy outlet ed hardy outlet
    ed hardy sale ed hardy sale
    ed hardy store ed hardy store
    ed hardy mens ed hardy mens
    ed hardy womens ed hardy womens
    ed hardy kids ed hardy kids ed hardy kids

  4. iphone revolution said,

    December 30, 2009 at 8:44 am

    iphone wireless


    Apple iphone

  5. kimekime said,

    April 1, 2010 at 5:58 am

    cheap wedding invitations
    cheap prom dresses
    cheap bridesmaid dresses
    lace wigs