How Reliable Is Peer Reviewed Health Science Research?

Two articles questioning the reliability of peer-reviewed research came to our attention recently.

David H. Freeman’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” (Atlantic Monthly, November 2010) asserts that “much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors–to a striking extent–still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice?”

More recently, Jennifer Howard’s “Despite Warnings, Biomedical Scholars Cite Hundreds of Retracted Papers” (Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2011), claims that “a large number of retracted papers continue to be cited long after they have been flagged as untrustworthy.” The article is available on line to subscribers.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you, Dr. Long, for illuminating this issue. Being rather new to scholarly writing and research, I’m wondering how I can identify papers that have been “flagged as untrustworthy”? I would hate to think that I’m adding to the problem by citing a paper that has been retracted. Do you have any suggestions for how I can identify such papers?

  2. Heather, preventing this problem depends on the thoroughness of one’s literature search and the regularity with which one stays current with the literature in a precisely defined field. There have been some published studies suggesting that a significant percentage of science researchers simply cut and paste the references from previously published studies without: a) reading the articles cited, or b) using database searches for the most current information. One study, for example, identified patterns of typographical errors in bibliographies, in which typographical errors in Author A’s article were replicated in the articles of Authors B, C, and D! This is a time saving shortcut, but it runs two risks: a) assuming (not always correctly) that earlier researchers have accurately understood and represented the material they cite, and b) falling short of an intimate knowledge of the literature. This is one of the ways in which Isaiah Berlin’s citing of Archilochus’ “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” can be apt: At least at the beginning of one’s research career, focusing on a precisely defined research agenda can be most productive. You need to be a hedgehog! (I, on the other hand, tend to be foxy, which means I’m always trying to master a variety of literatures. Sigh.)

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