On science blogs this week: Fishy

WATCHING RETRACTIONS AND RETRACTION WATCH. A big week for buzz about retractions of scientific papers because, as Carl Zimmer explains at his blog The Loom, he did a long feature on the rise in retractions of journal articles for Science Times. That will raise the profile of the retractions problem significantly.

Which demonstrates once again how prescient Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus were to launch their blog Retraction Watch in 2010. They find something depressing to disclose pretty much daily, sometimes more often. In another Loom post, Carl praises them too, and links to a follow-up they wrote for Boston.com.

Retraction Watch's content is frequently alarming, but also can be entertaining. See, for example, Ivan's Tuesday discussion of the math paper retracted for lack of scientific content. This one smacks of hoax, and I guess I approve of at least some hoax papers. Not only are they fun, they can also lay bare the atrocious laxity that prevails at some journals.

Jerry Coyne chews over Carl's piece at Why Evolution is True, noting

Retractions, of course, reflect not just scientific misconduct, but honest mistakes that were caught later. My suspicion, though, is that most of them involve either misconduct or the publication of quick-and-dirty results that aren’t checked carefully enough. Zimmer posits that, in case of simple error, the wider proliferation of journals online makes those errors easier to spot. To me this is insufficient to explain the huge rise...but that’s just a feeling. (Of course, there have been well-documented cases of fraud.) The root cause of fraudulent or quick-and-dirty publication is increasing pressure to publish and get grants, leading to more anxiety and careerism

Coyne has his own jarring tale to tell. He was offered a job at another university. His own countered with a raise and research money to stay, but also asked him to apply for more grants even though he didn't need more. Coyne's comment:

Getting a grant used to be a means to an end: it provided the money to help us do the research to understand nature. There’s now been a curious inversion of priorities, in which the research itself becomes the means to procuring the end: the grant money, needed by universities to pay for their facilities and faculty salaries.

A Nature news article last fall claimed that, based on Thomson-Reuters data, the number of retraction notices has gone up 10-fold in the past couple of decades although the literature volume has increased by only 44%. Retractions tracked in Medline (which is only a partial compendium of the scientific literature) have gone from 10 per 100,000 papers in 1998, a peak year in the 90s, to 46 per 100,000 last year. (HT to Ivan Oransky for these links.)

The numerical increases in retractions may look scary, but the percentage increases are not huge, and it seems possible that the data reflect mostly heightened alertness and improved detection more than a substantial growth in the number of bad papers. Still, what the data on retractions say about the real proportion of error — accidental or intended — is anyone's guess.

WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT OF FISHY PAPERS. For more than half a century there has been speculation that Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, was the unacknowledged co-author of that 1905 paper on special relativity. At the Physics arXiv Blog, KFC describes a new paper by Einstein scholar Galina Weinstein arguing that Maric could not have helped with the paper because she didn't have the smarts. Weinstein says Maric flunked her finals and never received a degree.

OTOH, in 1919 Einstein did agree to turn over any Nobel Prize winnings to Maric as part of their divorce settlement. Some have argued that agreement amounted to hush money. Einstein did win his Nobel, finally, in 1922 — not for the world-renowned special relativity paper, but for another 1905 paper, the one arguing that light acts as a particle as well as a wave.

If you think the politics of science is rough today, you should have been around in 1921, when the Prize committee was considering whether to bestow their glory on him. This convoluted tale was ably recounted by Virginia Hughes in a 2006 Discover article. The Prize committee initially rejected Einstein because he was a Jew with socialist leanings and, even worse, a theoretical rather than an experimental physicist.

Hughes says he needed the Prize money to pay off Maric, but on a quick search I wasn't able to learn whether he actually did hand it over.

Nonetheless, this is a fine opportunity to run everybody's favorite Einstein photo. Again.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ON HEART DISEASE TURNS OUT TO BE FISHY. It was also a week for contrarian trashing of conventional wisdom about heart disease.

First, it appears that the evidence that fish oil--in the form of omega-3 fatty acid supplements — can prevent heart problems in people with heart disease is, well, fishy. This, oddly, didn't make nearly the media splash I would have expected, given the fact that the US market for fish oil supplements is said to be a billion dollars annually.

Well took up the fish tale with a piece by Anahad O'Connor reporting on a meta-analysis in Archives of Internal Medicine. The paper cherry-picked only the classiest research to meta-analyze, 14 randomized, placebo-controlled studies out of 1,000 in the literature. The studies selected involved more than 20,000 subjects (mostly men) and concluded that there was not enough evidence in them to show that fish oil supplements were preventive in heart patients.

There are rays of hope for fish oil purveyors. An accompanying editorial speculated that while the trials' subjects had been taking fish oil for at least a year, that may not be long enough to demonstrate preventive effects. Still unsettled is the question of whether omega-3 fatty acids can ward off heart disease in those who haven't yet developed it.

Well classified this as a post on Alternative Medicine. But there's nothing alternative about it; cardiologists routinely prescribe fish oil. Omega-3s are about as thoroughly embedded in the cardiovascular meds routine as that daily baby aspirin. It may be a difficult therapeutic reflex to abandon — especially since there remains a smidgen of uncertainty about whether taking fish oil long-term may be helpful after all.

In her post at the Los Angeles Times's Booster Shots, Rosie Mestel traces the history of fish oil as a panacea for heart disease back to the 1970s and the hypothesis that Eskimos have low rates of heart disease because they eat so much fish. The rest of us should do likewise, the editorial urges, if only because fish protein is an excellent replacement for the now widely decried red meat. The editorial also suggests, Mestel notes

that maybe these days, drugs such as statins make it hard to detect a benefit from fish oils because the statins and other meds are already helping people so much. This could explain why more recent trials show no omega-3 benefit while older ones did.

AHA STATEMENT GUMS UP THE WORKS. Mestel also described the declaration by the American Heart Association arguing that there was no convincing evidence of a relationship between heart disease and gum disease, although that has been conventional wisdom too. To say nothing of a marketing tool for the periodontal industry. As Boyce Rensberger points out at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, the American Academy of Periodontology continues to promote the idea of a link between gum disease and cardiovascular disease. The American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs, however, is said to agree with the AHA report.

The studies on which the original claim was based tend to show that people with gum disease often have heart disease as well and vice-versa. But it looks as if that statistical link may be a case of correlation rather than cause, a perennial trap for science writers. Not to mention readers. The life conditions predisposing to gum disease also raise the risk for heart disease — for example smoking, diabetes, and the fate that befalls us all: getting older.

Apr. 20, 2012

Drexel University online