After our post yesterday on a fishy retraction from author Brian Peskin, a reader who alerted the journal to problems got in touch to give us the lowdown.
Ian Garber is in the last year of medical residency at the University of British Columbia. Here’s the story he told us via email:
A few months ago, I saw an article reposted on Facebook called “Why Fish Oil Fails: A Comprehensive 21st Century Lipids-Based Physiologic Analysis.” I was quite interested, since I had done some work in a lipid disorders clinic not too long ago, and omega-3 fatty acids were something still being recommended by the specialists there. (I’m an M.D., currently completing my final year of specialty training in medical biochemistry at the University of British Columbia).
The article, published in Journal of Lipids, discussed at great length how the initially proposed health benefits of omega-3 fats had not panned out, and in fact polyunsaturated fats could be harmful to your health because they were prone to oxidation into toxic substances. The article was filled with vast numbers of references, and highly detailed mechanistic explanations, but surprisingly little empirical evidence to back these up. This attempt to impress the reader with overwhelming and unnecessary detail made my pseudoscience sense tingle, but it seemed to be in a legitimate journal (the parent company Hindawi publishes over 400 different academic journals), so I read on.
Having taken in the rest of the article, my impression was that there was some interesting information scattered throughout, but overall this was a very poorly written and heavily biased paper. The author made numerous logical errors and wild extrapolations. He repeatedly drew conclusions that didn’t follow from his premises. He used appeal to authority, toward the vague entity of “21st century lipid science”… This is the kind of language I would expect in marketing, not biochemistry. Hmmm… I checked the author affiliations and conflict of interest statement. No conflict of interest declared. Stated affiliation was “The International PEO Society”. When I looked up this organization, the only mention I could find of them was their website: http://www.peo-society.org/ No content, not even an explanation of what PEO stands for, just a logo and another vague statement about “state-of-the-art 21st century medical science”. At this point, alarm bells are screaming: looks like astroturfing to me. Basically a placeholder to give the superficial appearance of a legitimate organization.
I moved on from the affiliations, and did some more digging on the author himself. I was shocked to see that one of the first search hits was “Peskin Pharmaceuticals” (http://www.peskinpharma.com/) with none other than the author himself at the helm. Didn’t the article say no conflicts of interest?? I checked again. Yup. Browsing the website, it became clear that Peskin Pharmaceuticals was selling a supplement stated to be “The first and only organically certified drug to prevent/reverse both cardiovascular disease and cancer utilizing a unique patent-pending formulation — maximizing intracellular oxygen transfer. All active ingredients are natural/organically grown and processed. You and your patients can feel good about taking them.” In other words, a product that would be in direct competition with fish oil!
Further down the search results came the following damning report: http://www.quackwatch.org/
11Ind/Peskin/peskin.html This revealed that Brian Peskin does not have any medical credentials, only a degree in a completely unrelated field (electrical engineering), and that he has previously faced criminal charges for misrepresenting his credentials and making fraudulent medical claims!
I emailed the editor of Journal of Lipids, detailing my concerns, and asking that at bare minimum they amend a conflict of interest statement to the article. I received a cursory response, thanking me for the information, and promising that they would investigate further. I didn’t seriously expect that this would go anywhere, and when I didn’t hear back after a few weeks, I assumed the journal had decided not to act. Then last week I received the following email:
“Dear Dr. Garber,
I am writing to you in regard to the investigation that we have conducted into the publication of the manuscript “Why Fish Oil Fails: A Comprehensive 21st Century Lipids-Based Physiologic Analysis.” First, I would like to thank you for your input into this investigation. We have now had a chance to look into a number of concerning points regarding this manuscript, and as a result of our findings we have retracted this article on the grounds that its author had a competing interest that he did not declare. Please check the retraction statement of the article on http://www.hindawi.com/
If you have any questions regarding this case please let me know, and once again I would like to thank you for your input into our investigation.”
- Scientific journals are too caught up in the business of publishing to do even cursory checks of their authors’ credentials. This is not the sort of thing peer review can pick up, because the author’s identity is not disclosed the reviewer. So check yourself – especially if it is a single-author paper.
- This particular journal may warrant further scrutiny, given its acceptance of this highly questionable paper and its “pay-to-publish” model. The references cited in the article include sources like old textbooks and Scientific American, which no serious review process would have allowed to slip through.
- Know how to recognize pseudoscience, and be vigilant no matter what the source of information. This may seem daunting if you don’t have any formal scientific training, but there are lots of great resources online that can give you the tools you need.