Following an investigation sparked by criticism for its decision to publish a paper questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, a Frontiers journal has decided to not retract the article but rebrand it as an “opinion.”
In September, 2014, Patricia Goodson, a professor of health education at Texas A&M University, published an article called “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent.”
The paper was quickly called into question, and the journal, Frontiers in Public Health, issued a statement of concern and promised to look into the problem. Now, they’ve announced their solution: call the paper an “opinion” and publish an argument against it.
Here is an excerpt of the publisher’s statement:
Frontiers has received several complaints from public health professionals related to the article “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent,” which questions the link between HIV and AIDS. Acknowledging the gravity of these concerns, and the implications that the weakening of the HIV-AIDS link has on public health in general, an internal investigation was conducted.
During the course of the investigation, Frontiers has sought expert input from the Specialty Chief Editors of the HIV and AIDS section of Frontiers in Public Health and Frontiers in Immunology. Based on the conclusion of the investigation the article type of “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent” has been changed to an Opinion article, which represents the viewpoint of an individual. In addition, a commentary on the article has been published “Commentary on ‘Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent’,” which discusses the concerns and analyzes the viewpoint within a scientific discourse on the topic.
To many scientists, this is too little, too late. As Johns Hopkins biologist Kenneth Witwer notes, publishing a rebuttal actually legitimizes the ‘debate’ by putting AIDS denialism on equal footing with the opposition. (Witwer has called on scientists to boycott the publisher in response.)
AIDS denialism isn’t just a fun internet conspiracy. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Cape Town have estimated that around 340,000 people died between 1999 and 2007 thanks to the South African government’s refusal to acknowledge the link between HIV and AIDS, and provide timely treatment and education to prevent its spread. That’s every person in 19 Madison Square Gardens filled to capacity, dead because powerful individuals put their faith in discredited science.
It is not good enough that Frontiers In now calls this denialist piece ‘an opinion piece’. It should have been retracted as it is full of demonstrably false claims. Just because there are lunatic fringe beliefs that have persisted in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, does not justify reprinting these claims without requiring the author to engage with this evidence.
The FPH commentary, by University of Connecticut AIDS researcher Seth Kalichman, defends the journal’s decision (“At the expense of her own credibility as well as the reputation of Frontiers in Public Health, Patricia Goodson has actually performed a public service. It is important for people to know that AIDS denialists do indeed still exist”) while heavily criticizing the paper itself:
Goodson’s article is a primer on AIDS denialism unlike any seen in what is purportedly a peer-reviewed journal. Goodson relies on material found in articles more than two decades old, a time when HIV first emerged and there were legitimate questions raised about a then unknown pathogen. Goodson’s article relies on self-published books, blog posts, essays, and fringe articles. There is no credible research offered by Goodson to support her opinion that there is any debate about HIV as the cause of AIDS, simply because there is no such debate.
Its peer reviewers, whose names are known, accept 80-90% of submissions, rejecting only those which are fatally flawed. Authors of successful manuscripts pay a publication fee, ranging from $750 to $2,600, so that readers can have free access to articles. A paper’s merit is gauged after publication, using assorted internet metrics like the number of downloads.
Tara Smith at ScienceBlogs has more on the people who reviewed the article before it went to press:
The two reviewers, Preeti Negandhi and Lalit Raghunath Sankhe are also apparently both members of the FPH editorial board, despite almost no academic record. Neither has experience in HIV/AIDS , but the latter appears to be the editor, Sanjay P Zodpey’s go-to reviewer, while the former only has one publication listed on the FPH page, co-authored with Zodpey on public health capacity development in India. No publications are listed on Sankhe’s page, but there was one I could find which may possibly be associated with this name. Other than that, zero record in PubMed.
We’ve reached out to the journal editor and Goodson, and will update if we hear back.
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