What motivates someone to publish that paper without checking it? Laziness? Naivety? Greed? Now that’s one to ponder. – Neuroskeptic, Science needs vigilantes.
- Make the world safe for post-publication peer review (PPR) commentary.
- Ensure appropriate rewards for those who do it.
- Take action against those who try to make life unpleasant for those who are toil hard for a scientific literature that is more trustworthy.
In this issue of Mind the Brain, I set the stage for my teaming up with Magneto to bring some bullies to justice.
The background tale of a modest study of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for patients with schizophrenia has been told in bits and pieces elsewhere.
The story at first looked like it was heading for a positive outcome more worthy of a blog post than the shortcomings of a study in an obscure journal. The tale would go
A group organized on the internet called attention to serious flaws in the reporting of a study. We then witnessed the self-correcting of science in action.
If only this story was complete and accurately described scientific publishing today
Daniel Lakens’ blog post, How a Twitter HIBAR [Had I Been A Reviewer] ends up as a published letter to the editor recounts the story beginning with expressions of puzzlement and skepticism on Twitter.
Gross errors were made in a table and a figure. These were bad enough in themselves, but seemed to point to reported results not seem supporting the claims made in the article.
A Swedish lecturer blogged Through the looking glass into an oddly analyzed clinical paper .
Some of those involved in the Twitter exchange banded together in writing a letter to the editor.
Smits, T., Lakens, D., Ritchie, S. J., & Laws, K. R. (2014). Statistical errors and omissions in a trial of cognitive behavior techniques for psychosis: commentary on Turkington et al. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 202(7), 566.
Lakens explained in his blog
Now I understand that getting criticism on your work is never fun. In my personal experience, it very often takes a dinner conversation with my wife before I’m convinced that if people took the effort to criticize my work, there must be something that can be improved. What I like about this commentary is that is shows how Twitter is making post-publication reviews possible. It’s easy to get in contact with other researchers to discuss any concerns you might have (as Keith did in his first Tweet). Note that I have never met any of my co-authors in real life, demonstrating how Twitter can greatly extend your network and allows you to meet interesting and smart people who share your interests. Twitter provides a first test bed for your criticisms to see if they hold up (or if the problem lies in your own interpretation), and if a criticism is widely shared, can make it fun to actually take the effort to do something about a paper that contains errors.
It might be slightly weird that Tim, Stuart, and myself publish a comment in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, a journal I guess none of us has ever read before. It also shows how Twitter extends the boundaries between scientific disciplines. This can bring new insights about reporting standards from one discipline to the next. Perhaps our comment has made researchers, reviewers, and editors who do research on cognitive behavioral therapy aware of the need to make sure they raise the bar on how they report statistics (if only so pesky researchers on Twitter leave you alone!). I think this would be great, and I can’t wait until researchers from another discipline point out statistical errors in my own articles that I and my closer peers did not recognize, because anything that improves the way we do science (such as Twitter!) is a good thing.
Hindsight: If the internet group had been the original reviewers of the article…
The letter was low key and calmly pointed out obvious errors. You can see it here. Tim Smit’s blog Don’t get all psychotic on this paper: Had I (or we) Been A Reviewer (HIBAR) describes what had to be left out to keep within the word limit.
- The confidence intervals were suspiciously wide.
- The effect sizes seemed too large for what the modest sample size should yield.
- The table was inconsistent with information in the abstract.
- Neither they table nor the accompanying text had any test of significance nor reporting of means and standard deviations.
- Confidence intervals for two different outcomes were identical, yet one had the same value for its effect size as its lower bound.
Figure 5 was missing labels and definitions on both axes, rendering it uninterpretable. Duh?
The authors of the letter were behaving like a blue helmeted international peacekeeping force, not warriors attacking bad science.
In making recommendations, the Internet group did politely introduce the R word:
We believe the above concerns mandate either an extensive correction, or perhaps a retraction, of the article by Turkington et al. (2014). At the very least, the authors should reanalyze their data and report the findings in a transparent and accurate manner.
Fair enough, but I doubt the authors of the letter appreciated how upsetting this reasonable advice was or anticipated what reaction would be coming.
A response from an author of the article and a late night challenge to debate
The first author of the article published a reply
Turkington, D. (2014). The reporting of confidence intervals in exploratory clinical trials and professional insecurity: a response to Ritchie et al. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 202(7), 567.
He seemed to claim to re-examine the study data and
- The findings were accurately reported.
- A table of means and standard deviations was unnecessary because of the comprehensive reporting of confidence intervals and p-values in the article.
- The missing details from the figure were self-evident.
The group who had assembled on the internet was not satisfied. An email exchange with Turkington and the editor of the journal confirmed that Turkington had not actually re-examined the raw file data, but only a summary with statistical tables.
The group requested the raw data. In a subsequent letter to the editor, they would describe Turkington as timely the providing the data, but the exchange between them was anything but cordial. Turkington at first balked, saying that the data were not readily available because the statistician had retired. He nonetheless eventually provided the data, but not before first sending off a snotty email –
Tim Smit declined:
Thanks for providing the available data as quick as possible. Based on this and the tables in the article, we will try to reconstruct the analysis and evaluate our concerns with it.
With regard to your recent invitation to “slaughter” me at Newcastle University, I politely want to decline that invitation. I did not have any personal issue in mind when initiating the comment on your article, so a personal attack is the least of my priorities. It is just from a scientific perspective (but an outsider to the research topic) that I was very confused/astonished about the lack of reporting precision and what appears to be statistical errors. So, if our re-analysis confirms that first perception, then I am of course willing to accept your invitation at Newcastle university to elaborate on proper methodology in intervention studies, since science ranks among the highest of my priorities.
When I later learned of this email exchange, I wrote to Turkington and offered to go to Newcastle to debate either as Tim Smits’ second or to come alone. Turkington asked me to submit my CV to show that I wasn’t a crank. I complied, but he has yet to accept my offer.
A reanalysis of the data and a new table
Smits, T., Lakens, D., Ritchie, S. J., & Laws, K. R. (2015). Correcting Errors in Turkington et al.(2014): Taking Criticism Seriously. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 203(4), 302-303.
The group reanalyzed the data and the title of their report leaked some frustration.
We confirmed that all the errors identified by Smits et al. (2014) were indeed errors. In addition, we observed that the reported effect sizes in Turkington et al. (2014) were incorrect by a considerable margin. To correct these errors, Table 2 and all the figures in Turkington et al. (2014) need to be changed.
The sentence in the Abstract where effect sizes are specified needs to be rewritten.
A revised table based on their reanalyses was included:
To conclude, our recommendation for the Journal and the authors would now be to acknowledge that there are clear errors in the original Turkington et al. (2014) article and either accept our corrections or publish their own corrigendum. Moreover, we urge authors, editors, and reviewers to be rigorous in their research and reviewing, while at the same time being eager to reflect on and scrutinize their own research when colleagues point out potential errors. It is clear that the authors and editors should have taken more care when checking the validity of our criticisms. The fact that a rejoinder with the title “A Response to Ritchie et al. [sic]” was accepted for publication in reply to a letter by Smits et al. (2014) gives the impression that our commentary did not receive the attention it deserved. If we want science to be self-correcting, it is important that we follow ethical guidelines when substantial errors in the published literature are identified.
Sound and fury signifying nothing
Publication of their letter was accompanied by a blustery commentary from the statistical editor for the journal full of innuendo and pomposity.
Cicchetti, D. V. (2015). Cognitive Behavioral Techniques for Psychosis: A Biostatistician’s Perspective. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 203(4), 304-305.
He suggested that the team assembled on the internet
reanalyzed the data of Turkington et al. on the basis that it contained some serious errors that needed to be corrected. They also reported that the statistic that Turkington et al. had used to assess effect sizes (ESs) was an inappropriate metric.
Well, did Turkington’s table contain errors and was the metric inappropriate? If so, was a formal correction or even retraction needed? Cicchetti reproduced the internet groups’ table, but did not immediately offer his opinion. So, the uncorrected article stands as published. Interested persons downloading it from behind the journal’s paywall won’t be alerted to the controversy.
Instead of dealing with the issues at hand, Cicchetti launched into an irrelevant lecture about Jacob Cohen’s arbitrary designation of effect sizes as small, medium, or large. Anything he said had already appeared clearer and more accurately in an article by Daniel Laken, one of the internet group authors. Cicchetti cited that article, but only as a basis for libeling the open access journal in which it appeared.
To be perfectly candid, the reader needs to be informed that the journal that published the Lakens (2013) article, Frontiers in Psychology, is one of an increasing number of journals that charge exorbitant publication fees in exchange for free open access to published articles. Some of the author costs are used to pay reviewers, causing one to question whether the process is always unbiased, as is the desideratum. For further information, the reader is referred to the following Web site: http://www.frontiersin.org/Psychology/fees.
As an additional comment, the stellar contributions of Helena Kraemer and Sue Thiemann (1987) were noticeable by their very absence in the Smits et al. critique. The authors, although genuinely acknowledging the lasting contributions of Jacob Cohen to our understanding of ES and power analysis, sought to simplify the entire enterprise
Jacob Cohen is dead and cannot speak. But good Queen Mother Helena is very much alive and would surely object to being drawn into this nonsense. I encourage Cicchetti to ask what she thinks.
Ah, but what about the table based on the re-analyses of the internet group that Cicchetti had reproduced?
The reader should also be advised that this comment rests upon the assumption that the revised data analyses are indeed accurate because I was not privy to the original data.
Actually, when Turkington sent the internet group the study data, he included Cicchetti in the email.
The internet group experienced one more indignity from the journal that they had politely tried to correct. They had reproduced Turkington’s original table in their letter. The journal sent them an invoice for 106 euros because the table was copyrighted. It took a long email exchange before this billing was rescinded.
Science Needs Vigilantes
Imagine a world where we no longer depend on a few cronies of an editor to decide once and forever the value of a paper. This would replace the present order in which much of the scientific literature is untrustworthy, where novelty and sheer outrageousness of claims are valued over robustness.
Imagine we have constructed a world where post publication commentary is welcomed and valued. Data are freely available for reanalysis and the rewards are there for performing those re-analyses.
We clearly are not there yet and certainly not with this flawed article. The sequence of events that I have described has so far not produced a correction of a paper. As it stands, the paper concludes that nurses can and should be given a brief training that will allow them to effectively treat patients with severe and chronic mental disorder. This paper encourages actions that may put such patients and society at risk because of ineffectual and neglectful treatment.
The authors of the original paper and the editor responded with dismissal of the criticisms, ridicule, and, the editor at least, libeling open access journals. Obviously, we have not reached the point at which those willing to re-examine and if necessary, re-analyze data, are appropriately respected and protected from unfair criticism. The current system of publishing gives authors who have been questions and editors who are defensive of their work, no matter how incompetent and inept it may be, the last word. But there is always the force of social media- tweets and blogs.
The critics were actually much too kind and restrained in a critique narrowly based on re-analyses. They ignored so much about
- The target paper as an underpowered feasibility study being passed off a source of estimates of what a sufficiently sized randomized trial would yield.
- The continuity between the mischief done in this article with tricks and spin in the past work of the author Turkington.
- The laughably inaccurate lecture of the editor.
- The lowlife journal in which the article was published.
These problems deserve a more unrestrained and thorough trashing. Journals may not yet be self-correcting, but blogs can do a reasonable job of exposing bad science.
Science needs vigilantes, because of the intransigence of those pumping crap into the literature.
Coming up next
In my next issue of Mind the Brain I’m going to team up with Magneto. You may recall I previously collaborated with him and Neurocritic to scrutinize some junk science that Jim Coan and Susan Johnson had published in PLOS One. Their article crassly promoted to clinicians what they claimed was a brain-soothing couples therapy. We obtained an apology and a correction in the journal for undeclared conflict of interest.
But that incident left Magneto upset with me. He felt I did not give sufficient attention to the continuity between how Coan had slipped post hoc statistical manipulations in the PLOS article to get positive results and what he had done in a past paper with Richard Davison. Worse, I had tipped off Jim Coan about our checking his work. Coan launched a pre-emptive tirade against post-publication scrutiny, his now infamous Negative Psychology rant He focused his rage on Neuroskeptic, not Neurocritic or me, but the timing was not a coincidence. He then followed up by denouncing me on Facebook as the Chopra Deepak of skepticism.
I still have not unpacked that oxymoronic statement and decided if it was a compliment.
OK, Magneto, I will be less naïve and more thorough this round. I will pass on whatever you uncover.
Check back if you just want to augment your critical appraisal skills with some unconventional ones or if you just enjoy a spectacle. If you want to arrive at your own opinions ahead of time, email Douglas Turkington firstname.lastname@example.org and for a PDF of his paywalled article. Tell him I said hello. The offer of a debate still stands.