Letter on vaping science paper earns expression of concern because author made up a degree

via Wikimedia

Leonard Zelig, meet Zvi Herzig.

The journal Circulation has issued an expression of concern about a 2015 letter, putatively written by Herzig, in which the author poked holes in a review article about e-cigarettes. 

According to the EoC, however, Herzig, like Zelig, may be a bit of a chameleon.

As we’ll see, Herzig does cop to resume doctoring. The masters of public health degree after his name is bogus — but he has an explanation for why it appeared. His affiliation may be less than meets the eye, too. But his critiques appear to be valid, and have drawn praise by other researchers for their acuity. 

The letter in question was titled “Letter by Herzig regarding article, ‘Electronic cigarettes: a scientific review.” That article had been published in 2014 by a group led by Stanton Glantz, of the University of California, San Francisco. (Last week, a journal retracted a paper by Glantz and a co-author linking use of e-cigarettes to heart attacks after critics found errors that were lethal to their analysis.)

In his letter, Herzig, who is listed as being with the Uvacharta Bachayim Institute in Jerusalem — good luck finding anything about it online — levels several criticisms of the review. 

The EoC states

The Editors of Circulation are issuing an Expression of Concern regarding article, “Letter by Herzig Regarding Article, ‘Electronic Cigarettes: A Scientific Review’” which appeared in the February 10, 2015, issue of the journal (Circulation. 2015;131:e341. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.012089).

The Editors received correspondence related to Mr Herzig’s degree and institute affiliation. The Editors attempted to contact Mr Herzig about this correspondence, but have not received a response from Mr Herzig.

Since the Editors have been unsuccessful in verifying Mr Herzig’s stated degree and affiliation, the Editors are posting this Expression of Concern.

It’s unclear who alerted the journal to the issue. Joseph Hill, the top editor at Circulation, wouldn’t comment on the EoC but passed our queries along to the press office of the American Heart Association, which publishes the journal. Michelle Kirkwood, the AHA’s director of National Science Media Relations, quoting representatives of the journal, told us: 

As stated in the EOC, the journal received correspondence related to Mr. Herzig’s credentials, and the journal has attempted to contact him through the information provided when the article was submitted; however, we have not yet received a response from him. We cannot speculate on any additional details; we hope to hear from Mr. Herzig soon.

A Google search turns up no contact information of any kind for an Uvacharta Bachayim Institute in Israel or anywhere else. Nor does Herzig appear to have an online presence, other than as the author of several letters to the editor about e-cigarette research and as a tipster for bloggers who write about the topic. A “Zvi Herzig” commented on this 2019 Facebook post, and left a link to a Google doc about nicotine. But the name is not linked to an account. The only listing for him in PubMed is the EoC in Circulation

In other words, Herzig appears to be many places, and nowhere at all.

‘I am a real person’ 

Igor Burstyn, a public health researcher at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, was on the receiving end of a Herzig correction for his 2014 article in BMC Public Health, “Peering through the mist: systematic review of what the chemistry of contaminants in electronic cigarettes tells us about health risks.” In a follow-up letter to his paper, he wrote

I am thankful to Dr. Zvi Herzig for noticing an error in units in one result reported in the paper (Burstyn, 2014).  The sentence “Assuming extreme consumption of the liquid per day via vaping (5 to 25 ml/day and 50-95% propylene glycol in the liquid), levels of propylene glycol in inhaled air can reach 1–6 mg/m3” should read “… levels of propylene glycol in inhaled air can reach 1–6 g/m3”.  This strengthens the stated conclusion that “… estimated levels of exposure to propylene glycol … warrant concern.”  The corrected calculation was one of several that were used to draw this conclusion. It was a worse-than-worst-realistic-case scenario and would have to be reconciled with measurements of emissions, and thus should not be considered a realistic quantification unless further measurements change our assessment of what constitutes a realistic scenario.  The corrected estimate suggests greater caution is warranted than the original estimate, but is still not cause for alarm. It implies that we should be doing more active research to understand the effects of inhalation exposure to propylene glycol at levels higher than those that have been studied in the past, if the predicted exposures are indeed verified by measurements.

I sincerely apologize to my readers for the error and am thankful for such attentive readership.

We asked Burstyn about the expression of concern and his interaction with Herzig. He told us: 

Mr Herzig emailed me and I can assure you that he is good at finding errors in math.

Burstyn said he never had any reason to doubt that Herzig was a real person, and that he found the journal’s expression of concern bizarre “as it does not articulate anything to be concerned about.”

Burstyn was kind enough to pass along a message from us to Herzig, and we received this reply via a Gmail account: 

I am an anti-smoking activist. The affiliation is an anti-smoking org (some of my advocacy is noted on Israel’s parliamentary website).

I am a real person and was doing my best to correct the scientific record on an important public health issue.

Herzig admitted that he does not have an MPH and that he included the credential to get his letter published: 

I found serious flaws in a review suggesting that e-cigarettes prevent tobacco cessation. The journal required a degree to submit correspondence. Should I have let things go and allowed smokers to die because of the misinformation?

Update, 1400 UTC, 3/3/20: Glantz, who was on vacation last week, told us:

Other than responding to the letter when the editors decided to publish it, I don’t know anything about what is going on or why the journal decided to do this now.

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