Sunday, June 5, 2011

Was the Science editorial board offered an incentive to demand a retraction ?

By Chris Douglas, Patient Advocate:

Letter to Science: why did you do it ?

Dr Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief Ms Monica Bradford, Executive Editor Science/AASS 1200 New York Avenue NW Washington, DC 20005

Dear Dr Alberts and Ms Bradford

I write concerning the editorial board’s public request to Lombardi et al to retract voluntarily their paper published in Science in October 2009.

I have read other letters of concern to Science about this request (including those from the Whittemore Peterson Institute) and will not repeat the challenges they make on valid scientific grounds. Instead, I will ask this: why did you do it and how are you going to repair the damage that has been caused ? A public request for the voluntary retraction of a paper of this level of importance to worldwide human health is unprecedented, out of proportion to the ill-founded criticisms that the editorial board levelled against it and more reflective of risk management than of scientific rigor. But what risk could the Act be mitigating ? Did the editorial board become nervous that their decision to support such innovative (and independent) research was backfiring because the weight and profile (rather than accuracy) of attacks on the paper looked likely to bury it and, by implication, the journal’s reputation with it ? Was the editorial board trying to avert potential, consequential criticisms of its own peer review process in accepting and publishing the paper? Was it considered easier and safer to side with the attackers, regardless of the weaknesses in their arguments, than to stand firm in a scientific fray that the journal itself had initiated ?

Or was the editorial board offered an incentive to make the request or told simply: if you do not demand a retraction, the journal and your own personal, professional reputations will be ruined ? Perhaps the editorial board did not understand the science well enough to realise that publicly requesting a retraction would incur any or all of the above accusations. You may dismiss these questions as mere ‘conspiracy theory’ but they are not that. I believe less in conspiracies and more in incompetence and cover up: incompetence in the flagrant mishandling of a public human health disaster for who knows how many years; and cover up by those who have much to lose by its exposure. I sincerely hope that the editorial board of Science has not joined the ranks of those who wilfully hide such knowledge. If the board wishes to assert its position as a leader (not a follower) in impartial (not political) scientific endeavor, perhaps it can do one thing: perhaps it can call for an end to the fanatical observance of the ‘scientific process’ for its own end and demand that all scientists with an interest in HGRVs sit together to discuss and resolve their differences for the greater good of global human health. The Governments of this world do not wait for ‘scientific process’ before they take action against avian flu, swine flu and e-coli, diseases that afflict thousands.

Why, therefore, should a retrovirus, akin to HIV, that may be infecting millions worldwide be subject to a process that has controversy, debate and procrastination in-built ?

If we face another HIV, then let us do so proactively and responsibly. If we do not face such a threat, then let us come to that conclusion through common sense and logic. If the current ‘scientific process’ does not facilitate either, then stand up for an alternative that does. Get the concerned scientists around a table. Get them talking, sharing knowledge and airing their differences.

Get an informed, rather than a political or rhetorical, resolution to this issue which, let's not forget, is about public health and not personal interest or ego.

Will you do this ? Will you lead ? If you and others in positions of power do not do this, it will be left to the sick and dying to fight for scientific due diligence in this matter and, be assured, we will fight hard.

Yours sincerely, Chris Douglas, Patient Advocate.

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