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Farewell To The Medscape Journal

On January 31, 2009 The Medscape Journal will be discontinued. One can only assume that the journal’s parent company, WebMD, could no longer justify the cost associated with a free, open-access, peer-reviewed medical journal that receives no income from advertisers or sponsors. The Medscape Journal’s budget has been supported by revenue generated from Medscape (the website), and their robust Continuing Medical Education (CME) business.

In these challenging economic times, American companies are taking a cold, hard look at their P and L spreadsheets and nixing the least profitable parts of their businesses. The inevitable “non-profit” casualties present an ethical dilemma. What will become of the noble pursuits that are based upon “doing the right thing” rather than making a profit?

There is no such thing as completely unbiased publishing (humans all have personal agendas – whether conscious or unconscious), though The Medscape Journal came about as close to it as any medical journal ever has. The journal is free to authors and readers, and provides 24-hour online access to both professional and lay viewers from around the globe. There are no advertisements or outside sponsors, peer reviewers work without compensation or specific recognition, and editors are paid a minimal salary (full disclosure: I know this because I was an editor for The Medscape Journal several years ago). CME credit is offered for articles determined to be of special relevance, but no articles are commissioned specifically for the purpose of CME.

The Medscape Journal is a wonderful experiment in high ethics. It espouses, in my opinion, the gold standard principles of medical publishing. Tragically, market forces (or perhaps the lack of perceived value by its own parent company) killed it. So what does this mean for medical publishing? If there is no economic model for “pure science” then are medical journals doomed to go the way of health media – promoting sensational or biased science for profit?

The answer is no. But we must tread very carefully now. The Medscape Journal is our proverbial canary in a publishing coal mine. Its inability to survive on ethics alone speaks to a growing lack of value placed on purity over profitability. We must soberly consider the facts: 1) The Internet creates the illusion that information is “free” and therefore subscription-based publishing platforms will end as viewers simply refuse to pay. 2) Advertisers are becoming more aggressive in their requirements – dynamic microsites and multi-media advertorials have replaced the old billboard approach, often blurring the lines between content and advertisement. 3) Search engines like Google are changing the way that health messages reach the public and scientists alike. The “impact factor” of research often lies in its marketing campaign. Important negative trials are buried under case reports, anecdotes, and news stories with snappier headlines.

So what are scientists to do? I suggest that those of us committed to science-based medicine join together in a united effort to harness new media tools for the public’s benefit. Let’s use social networking applications (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, online communities, etc.) to educate others about science, research, health claims, and potential biases. Let’s not be afraid of marketing scientific integrity – decades have already shown us how effective marketing can be for snake oil. If we don’t raise our collective voices – how will people get good information on the Internet? How will Google searches return highly ranked, sound information rather than sensational headlines?

Farewell to The Medscape Journal – and thank you for nearly a decade of honorable medical publishing. May the rest of us continue the vision, if only on different platforms.

Bad Science: How To Mislead, Misinform, and Make Mistakes in Medicine

Photo of Bad Science Book

I just finished reading Dr. Ben Goldacre’s new book, Bad Science. It received a very favorable review by the British Medical Journal, and so I thought I’d take a look for myself. After all, I am passionate about patient empowerment and worry sincerely for their safety as healthcare is becoming more and more of a “do-it-yourself” proposition.

Ben is a talented writer – his style is straightforward, accessible, and witty. The premise of the book is to expose the underbelly of science – how it’s miscommunicated to the public (via media, PR, and representatives from the snake oil community) and how research is often poorly designed (by uneducated scientists and government agencies, for-profit pharmaceutical companies, and biased physicians).

The case studies presented in Bad Science are especially poignant. Ben has selected a few shining examples of self-promoting figures who have risen to the highest rank of “expert” in the eyes of the media – all the while referring to themselves as “doctor” and yet only having a Ph.D. from an online correspondence school. Their legal bully tactics, fabrication of data to support their proprietary health gimmick, and extreme narcicism – are excellent studies in poor character triumphing over common sense. It is painful to see how successful snake oil salesmen can be, even in these modern and “enlightened” times.

Bad Science carefully dismantles the pseudoscience that underlies many of the claims of alternative medicine. He clearly demonstrates how research can be manipulated to demonstrate a positive effect for any therapeutic intervention, and explains why cosmetic and nutrition research are particularly rife with false positive results.

Ben also explores the role of the human psyche in misunderstanding science. Our deep desire to find a 1:1 correlation between every cause and effect is difficult to overcome. We want 1) to bring artificial simplicity out of complexity, 2) a quick fix in a pill form, 3) to believe in “breakthrough therapies,”4) to read sensational or scintillating news headlines. Unfortunately, science is often coopted to pander to these wants, rather than illuminate the truth.

Finally, Bad Science explores the many ways that statistics can be manipulated to support any claim. In fact, human intuition about math in general is quite flawed, which works against us as we try to understand the data collected by researchers.

I finished the book feeling enlightened but somewhat despairing – yearning to read a sequel, “Good Science” if only to restore my hope in the idea that wise people will have the courage to seek truth over sensationalism, and value objectivity over subjectivity for the greater good of all.

What does Ben Goldacre think we can do to combat the tidal wave of bad science on the Internet? He suggests that people of sound mind blog about the subject as frequently as possible, so that those who are searching for a voice of reason may find one. I blog here and at sciencebasedmedicine.org for that very purpose.

In my next post, I’ll summarize some tips from Bad Science that will help you to recognize when a health message is likely to be inaccurate.

Science Based Medicine – Your Best Shot At Truth

Regular readers of my blog will know that health fraud, misleading product and treatment claims, and deception of vulnerable populations (snake oil for cancer patients, for example) really get under my skin. For this reason, I’ve teamed up with a group of scientists and physicians to create a blog devoted to medical accuracy, transparency, and integrity in health reporting. It’s called Science Based Medicine, and we offer daily exposés of misleading health claims and practices. It’s a great way to learn about how to think critically – and to apply a scientific approach (rather than subjective and anecdotal) to discerning truth from error.

My contribution to the blogging team is to highlight online health fraud, scams, deception and misguided attempts to help consumers “live healthier lives.” I post once a week, every Thursday morning. Please head on over and check it out. It’s a great team of bloggers – and they’re looking out for you!

Here is a list of my recent posts:

A Shruggie Awakening: One Physician’s Journey Toward Scientific Enlightenment

Disintegrating Integrative Medicine: Lessons From Baking

When Further Research Is Not Warranted: The Wisdom of Crowds Fallacy

Knowledge Vs. Expertise: The View From Consumer Land



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