There is a long-standing and recognised procedure for the publication of academic papers. They go through a peer-review process, suggestions may or may not be made by anonymous reviewers back to the authors. Ultimately the paper may or may not be finally accepted. If it is published, then there may be a letter or letters to the editor criticising the paper, sometimes on grounds of methodology or conclusions drawn from findings. The original authors are given a chance to respond and life goes on. This is the normal cut and thrust of academic publishing. In that world, it is a question of publish or die and if you do put your head above the parapet, be prepared to be shot at.
What is decidedly not normal practice is for criticism of a study to extend to personal attacks on the original author, declarations that the publishing journal and staff are biased and calling for a boycott of the journal. Except this is exactly what has happened: Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, the journal Addiction and its Editor in Chief Dr Robert West have come under fire from Dr Thomas Eisenberg and colleagues backed by Professor Stan Glantz.
Read the Eisenberg letter and Addiction’s response here http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/add.13066/full
Read Dr Farsalinos’ response here and a further note from Dr Robert West
According to Dr Farsalinos, this is a classic case of researchers not actually understanding how the products work, especially in respect to trying to replicate outcomes. But clearly the issue goes further than a measured disagreement between researchers and even beyond perhaps the hubris that can overtake academics (and anyone else) who is given a regular public platform for their work and opinions. I suppose it is about notions of objective truth and the degree to which pre-conception plays a part in research. In this small example, we all know that certain researchers will never publish a paper that has anything positive to say about safer nicotine products (SNP) or at the very least will draw negative public policy conclusions unsupported by their own data perhaps the work of other named colleagues.
The same accusation can be levied against those whose work supports SNP, but as Dr Farsalinos points out:
“I have never had any issue with anyone who has an opinion against e-cigarettes. I have repeatedly reviewed papers authored by strong opponents, and I have rarely…rejected a paper. I don't mind publishing work that is against e-cigarettes like my diacetyl study, for which I had a very strong opinion and I received a lot of criticism from vapers and the industry.”
He goes to make this important point:
“but there are people who are unwilling to participate to any discussion where the opposite view will be heard, do not want to even consider doing any study about positive e-cigarette effects and create such an intimidating environment around them that people working in the same organization who may have a different opinion are afraid to speak”.
It is the point about open and public debate that interests me. I think I am right that opponents of SNP have been invited to GFN conferences and refused to come. I can understand this: it would take a hefty ego to willingly walk into a lion’s den of hostility. But what if it was a totally neutral venue with independent organisation and conducted like a US presidential debate? The facilitator would be an experienced media interviewer who would allow the combatants to make opening statements outlining their views about SNP and then they would have to answer specific points with rights of reply. This could provide a useful antidote to media reporting on the subject which not only leaves the general public utterly confused, but because of the attraction of scary headlines, has resulted in an increasingly negative view of SNP in relation to cigarettes.
As a footnote - Professor Glantz says he will not be sending any papers to Addiction. Depending on how this pans out, he might not be sending papers anywhere.