Monday, February 20, 2017

Tobacco Control Journal: There Can Be No Legitimate Discussion of Our Articles Without Our Permission

In a revelation of the religious-like character of the modern-day tobacco control movement, the journal Tobacco Control has suggested that there can be no legitimate discussion about articles it publishes without its permission; that is, on the Rapid Response forum at the journal's own web site. All other discussion of the scientific validity of journal articles is apparently illegitimate and inappropriate.

In an unprecedented editorial (I've never before seen a journal argue that the only legitimate forum for discussion of its articles is in the journal itself), the journal writes:

"the growing use of personal blogs to criticise published articles has led us to reflect on appropriate ways of engaging in such debate ... the proper place to pose questions and debate conclusions from research published in Tobacco Control is directly to the authors, in the form of a Rapid Response. ... placing personal blog posts or social media messages complaining about a study ... do not advance the field or allow an appropriate scientific dialogue and debate. ... As a result of discussion about these issues, the Tobacco Control editorial team has now established a policy that editors will not respond to external blog posts or social media messages about specific studies. ... We will always welcome legitimate criticism of methods, results and interpretation of published research. But we will discourage engagement with and dissemination of polemics that contribute to public misunderstandings and create conflict. As journal editors, we encourage constructive criticism and debate in ways that strengthen the evidence base for effective tobacco control policy rather than amplifying individual voices."

The Rest of the Story

I have never seen a scientific journal make such a bold statement. Do you mean to tell me that the only legitimate scientific discussion of an article published in a journal is that which takes place in the journal itself, in a forum that is managed and controlled by the journal? Do you mean to tell me that any other discussion or criticism of research articles is not constructive and serves only to "amplify individual voices?"

Moreover, what is wrong with creating "conflict" if it is warranted because the conclusions of an article are not supported by its findings? In fact, a blogger who is criticizing the conclusions of a study because they are warranted is not "creating" conflict. What is creating conflict is the fact that the paper disseminated those unwarranted conclusions and that the journal chose to publish this shoddy science in the first place.

The editorial does not specify exactly what irked the journal so much that it boldly went where no journal has gone before and declared that any discussion of its articles outside of its own purview is illegitimate. However, I think it's quite clear that what irked the journal was criticism on several blogs - including my own - of an article that concluded vaping is a gateway to youth smoking based on a sample of 4 nonsmoking youth who experimented with e-cigarettes and then went on to try one or two cigarettes.

In this study, the sample size of youth who were nonsmoking, recent vapers at baseline was only 13 and the number of youth in this category who "initiated" smoking was only 4. Thus, the sweeping conclusion of the paper, which has been publicized internationally, was based on only 4 kids! Moreover, despite having a sample size of 347 high school seniors, the study could not find a single student who became an actual new smoker after having experimented with e-cigarettes. The few students (a grand total of 4) who did try a cigarette or two did not progress beyond having one or two cigarettes.

Rather than simply admit that it made a mistake and this unwarranted conclusion slipped through the cracks, the journal instead tried to divert attention from its mistake by attacking the messengers: those like myself who pointed out the error.

It's unfortunate that the journal chose to respond in an ad hominem manner rather than to actually address the substantive scientific question, which is whether or not the conclusion that vaping is a "one-way bridge" to smoking among youth can be justified based on the finding that 4 youth who were nonsmokers at baseline and who had experimented with e-cigarettes went on to smoke one or two cigarettes in the next year (and did not become smokers).

The issue is whether that is the kind of scientific evidence that legitimately supports the paper's conclusion that vaping is a gateway to smoking, rather than the method by which a blogger who notes this study weakness should attempt to correct the public health damage done by the publication of the article.

I don't know whether the editorial was directed at me or at other bloggers, or both, but I can assure my readers that I will not stop providing discussion of the scientific research regarding electronic cigarettes just because one journal wants to control the entire discourse on the subject.

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