PLOS likes to use the word science but doesn’t exactly like what it stands for

Just yesterday I placed onto our website a link to an article published by the Public Library of Science by Simon Chapman on unassisted cessation. If you had to draw up sides on tobacco harm reduction Chapman would seem to be somewhat against and the PLOS neutral but that had nothing to do with my decision to promote the article. I posted it because it seemed a worthwhile contribution to the ongoing debate.

However, in the same issue of the online journal, a colleague drew my attention to something I had missed, a position statement in which the PLOS editors wrote:

While we continue to be interested in analyses of ways of reducing tobacco use, we will no longer be considering papers where support, in whole or in part, for the study or the researchers comes from a tobacco company.

In other words, PLOS will now only publish materials emanating from politically approved sources. If they are to be consistent in this, they really should change their name to Public Library of Politically-Approved Science (PLOPS).

And of course if I were to follow the same route I should not have posted the article as it came from a suspect source, that is a politically rather than scientifically oriented source. But, we’ve always been more about the message.

In the comments to the position statement, Michael McFadden aptly points out the inconsistency within it by noting how they describe the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry as another example of what the tobacco industry did and then use this as justification for the tobacco ban even while not proscribing pharma funding.

In another comment, Jeff Stier from ACSH writes:

But this is no justification to outright censor any studies published with support of the tobacco industry. Isn’t it the job of peer-reviewers to evaluate studies on their merits? What good is a peer-reviewed journal if a journal doesn’t trust itself to determine whether a study is valid?

The PLOS position is unfortunately not unique. Just two years ago, the editor of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) stated regarding a lung cancer study:

“I would never publish a paper dealing with lung cancer from a person who had taken money from a tobacco company”.

These are sobering developments. These journals which purport to work in the interest of improving public health have decided that if they do not approve of the sources, they will not let us hear the message. It is bad enough when governments are paternalistic but when academic publishing jumps on board, times are bad indeed.

I would like to think that if someone does find a cure for a disease or a good solution to a real problem that who they are does not stop the message from getting through. Using past or even present behavior of an entity to judge a message would remove the moral authority from any source. Why trust anything originating from Germany considering the Holocaust, or the United States considering the recent torture of Guatanamo detainees, or Exxon considering the oil spill, and so forth and so forth.

We have to stick with the message because it is the only thing you can trust.


Addendum: Jeff Stier expanded on his comments in this article today (Feb25).

Certainly, there are arguments to be made by on both sides of this issue. So how do we decide whether harm reduction should be used as a legitimate smoking cessation technique? Peer-reviewed scientific literature. In fact, tobacco companies wishing to make harm reduction claims must show the Food and Drug Administration that smokeless tobacco is less harmful, and that the approach would have an overall benefit to public health. To do so, they must present studies in peer-reviewed journals.

But who, if not for the tobacco industry, would fund such studies? Unfortunately, perhaps because of a bias by government scientists and policymakers, U.S. federal agencies are not investing in this type of research, despite the ongoing, frightful toll of preventable smoking addiction.

Why not allow the tobacco industry to fund and offer for publication studies on such issues? Journals should review such studies, like all others, with the highest level of scrutiny—and publish them only if they pass scientific muster. Such attacks on industry-funded science actually undermine the interests of the public, which benefits from the publication of a full range of studies, regardless of who funds them.

Journals should be like referees, deliberating on the substance of studies. If they did so, perhaps they’d stop publishing junk, get over their moralistic censorship, and just publish good science whatever the source. We’d all be better off for it.

4 thoughts on “PLOS likes to use the word science but doesn’t exactly like what it stands for

  1. I found this statement in PLoS’s editorial interesting: “Our new policy may be criticized as moralistic, unscientific, and against transparency.” I agree with them on this – their position IS moralistic, unscientific, and against transparency. Expecting a defense of this very valid criticism in the following sentences, I was surprised to find that they offered only this: that the American Thoracic Society also has a ban against tobacco money. So, in addition to the entire editorial being based on the ad hominem logical fallacy, their defense of criticism regarding the ban is essentially a kind of weak appeal to popularity: “Look, someone else is doing it too, so it must be ok”. The fact that this justification is given after admitting that other journals such as Tobacco Control and BMJ do not have such bans makes their position even weaker. Regardless though, how other journals act is not justification for their own actions.

    The reasons given in the prior paragraphs of the article are obviously not a proper defense of this criticism either. In fact, arguing that because tobacco harms health and that the industry has, in the past, acted irresponsibly is actually support for the criticism that PLoS is acting moralistically. They are essentially using their position as a journal to punish the industry.

    Also, the statement: “Unlike the food and pharmaceutical industries, the business of tobacco involves selling a product for which there is no possible health benefit” is incorrect. Nicotine does confer mental health benefits, like assisting in concentration, stress relief, pleasure, and can protect against neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinsons. And, in fact, as an appetite suppressant it does confer a health advantage as well in that it can protect against diabetes and other obesity-related health problems.

  2. Pingback: The IDRC and Barbara McDougall « Tobacco Harm Reduction: News & Opinions

  3. Pingback: Tobacco control does the easy thing, not the right thing « Tobacco Harm Reduction: News & Opinions

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