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Publish or Perish — What is driving scientific research?

It is all about research and publishing. That is the pressure supposedly exerted on academics, scientists and some physicians – “publish or perish”.

Scientific research is no different than any other form of research from the perspective of “garbage in garbage out”. These days most of us do some form of research on the internet. It may be simply trying to find the very best camera or the very best doctor for a tragic illness. The internet is crammed full of valuable information and…garbage. Separating the wheat from the chaff can sometimes be difficult.

Scientific research can not have the same margin of error that we may be able to live with when we are shopping for a camera, for example. Scientific and medical research has a far broader and potentially more injurious result if it is, well…garbage.

The New York Times published an article discussing the recent increase in retractions that seems to be permeating scientific and medical research. The Times interviewed two noted editors of the Journal of Infection and Immunity. They have recently discovered dozens and dozens of retractions that have had to be issued by very noted scientific journals.

One of editors told the Times that “he feared that science had turned into a winner-take-all game with perverse incentives that lead scientists to cut corners and, in some cases, commit acts of misconduct.”

A Harvard Medical School professor stated that “there are problems all through the system.”

To be certain, this is a very scary epiphany for the scientific community to have and perhaps it really is a revelation to some of them. Sadly, it is not new to many people who have been victims of bad or skewed medical or scientific research. We have been writing about at least a portion of the problem for some time:

Ghostwriting Mysteries of the Medical Device Industry” (2009)

Ghosts Writing About Science and the Public Health” (2009)

The Drug Business, Broadway, and Casper the Friendly Ghost” (2009)

Pain Pumps and a Lack of “Reliable” Scientific Evidence” (2010)

Scientific Research or Corporate Marketing?” (2010)

Pride & Prejudice About Product Safety” (2010)

Dietary Supplements — Litigating Unregulated “Drugs” (2010)

In the New York Times article the various experts offer explanations such as:

“What people do is they count papers, and they look at the prestige of the journal in which the research is published, and they see how may grant dollars scientists have, and if they don’t have funding, they don’t get promoted,” Dr. Fang said. “It’s not about the quality of the research.”

Dr. Ness likens scientists today to small-business owners, rather than people trying to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works. “You’re marketing and selling to other scientists,” she said. “To the degree you can market and sell your products better, you’re creating the revenue stream to fund your enterprise.”

Putting aside the very real danger to the lives of patients of promoting untrue, invalid or fabricated scientific research, there are also very practical, but just as damaging repercussions of this invalid research.

The medical and scientific industry has complained and whined for decades about lawyers bringing “junk science” into courtrooms in an effort to substantiate negligence cases in drug, medical device and medical negligence cases. The courts have gone so far as to impose standards, referred to in federal court as the Daubert Rule. The failure of a party to be able to have their science withstand the scrutiny of the Daubert principles can and will result in dismissal of claims. The problem is that much of the evaluation and analysis exacted in the Daubert rule is based upon research published in noted journals. Experts evaluating the science in those cases rely on research in those same scientific journals.

The ultimate damage can caused by judges who, at least in some cases, have been encouraged to dismiss cases based solely on one side or another arguing that the available research does not support the science being used by a particular party in a case. Tragically injured people have lawsuits dismissed by judges simply because the “scientific research” that the court decides to acknowledge as “authoritative” does not seem to support the claims.

We increasingly are discovering that the research used in courts to dismiss claims may be simply the result of paid “ghostwriting” by manufacturers; the greed for grant dollars; you are being a “small business owner” instead of a scientist; or the desire for career advancement.

The result? Tragically injured people, with very legitimate claims, are barred from having their “day in court”.

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