What’s More Unethical Than A Web Hoax? How About A Scientific Journal Hoax?


The Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, a respected scientific journal, published a supposedly peer-reviewed study in its current issue finding that kisses from mommy are not an effective way of remedying children’s boo-boos. Several news outlets fell for the hoax, including The Daily Caller.

“Maternal kisses are not effective in alleviating minor childhood injuries (boo-boos): a randomized, controlled and blinded study described the results of research allegedly conducted on 943 pairs of toddlers and their mothers and designed to determine whether a kiss from a child’s mother after a minor injury significantly reduced the child’s distress.

There were plenty of red flags in the study beyond its ridiculous subject matter. For example, the “researchers” wrote that they intentionally constructed scenarios in which children would hurt themselves. In one scenario, the authors claimed that they placed chocolate in an area where a child would bump his head trying to reach the chocolate. In another, they said that the researchers placed a child’s favorite object behind a heated coil so the child would burn herself trying to access the object.

Uh, yes, a real study that set out to injure infants would be unethical. Some of the( imaginary) children subjected to the alleged study were only 18 months old.

At the end of the faux research paper, the authors  saluted themselves for this study design, calling it “brilliant in its simplicity and robust in its design.”  They announced themselves as members of the Study of Maternal and Child Kissing (SMACK) Working Group, which they said was a subsidiary of Procter and Johnson, Inc., the maker of “Bac-Be-Gone ointment and Steri-Aids self-adhesive bandages.”  Academic research references listed at the end of the study included oddly-titled articles like “So what the hell is going on here?”

The paper was accepted by the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, a real publication owned by John Wiley & Sons, on December 10. John Wiley & Sons is a well-respected publisher of multiple academic and medical research journals. The journal’s website states without qualification that articles  “have been fully copy-edited and peer reviewed.” “Maternal kisses are not effective in alleviating minor childhood injuries (boo-boos): a randomized, controlled and blinded study”  contains no disclaimers warning that the paper and its underlying research might be a hoax.

What’s going on here?

Let me cut to the chase by saying that whatever it is, it’s unethical. If a group of mad wags constructed fake research to make a scientific journal look foolish by publishing it, that’s unethical (but funny!). If the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice failed to peer review the study, thus allowing it to slip through its screening process that was a breach of duty, responsibility, transparency and competence. If the Journal intentionally published a hoax study of its own concoction or that of someone else, it was a betrayal of trust, and unethical.

I know everybody is dying to get in on the punking parade, but there are some professions that don’t get to fool around. Sorry, MDs, but you can’t say, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Miller, but you have an inoperable brain tumor and will die in horrible agony within three months or less. KIDDING!”  Sorry, judges, but you can’t say to a defendant convicted of shoplifting, ” I believe you are incorrigible, and I therefore sentence you to death by lethal injection. GOTCHA!”

And I’m sorry, scientists, but about half of your real studies seem absurd or dubious. You dare not present fake studies as real assuming that everyone will “get it.” Not when indignant journalists are calling those who doubt your doomsday projections regarding climate change the equivalent of Holocaust deniers. Not when so many “real” findings turn out to be the result of faked results and phony data.

Asked by The Federalist to explain how and why the article was published,  Dr. Andrew Miles, the editor of the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, responded with this highly unsatisfactory and rationalization-filled e-mail:

“The article, which is positioned as the last paper in an issue which consists of over 60 major articles from leading authorities and institutions worldwide, and the latest in a very long series of annual thematic editions of the [Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice] JECP which have had a major impact on the course of the international [evidence-based medicine] EBM debate, is very clearly ironic and published with reference to the time of year, much as the [British Medical Journal] BMJ does with its own Christmas edition. (You remember the BMJ RCT of parachutes?!) However, the article has many lessons to teach to the now collapsing EBM brigade. If you are unsure of what these are (as appears from your e-mail to me) then my suggestion is that you contact the author, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine and Bioethics at the University of Wahsington, Seattle, USA, with the request that Dr. Tonelli illuminate matters for you. I feel certain that he will be more than happy to do so.”

Cordially, Professor Andrew Miles MSc MPhil PhD DSc (hc)
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice

Uh-uh. Saying it was “obviously ironic” is a dodge. Since a scholarly journal by definition only publishes serious and legitimate studies, there can be nothing “obvious” when it publishes a fake study without warning or disclaimer. NOW it is obvious that no one can trust what is published in The Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. Ever. The “Christmas is April Fools to us scientists” excuse? That is insufficient when people other that those in on the tradition are likely to encounter the “study.”

How do the legitimate articles in the issue, or the placement of the fake one, excuse the hoax? The Professor’s e-mail uses the following rationalizations, implicitly or directly:

8. The Trivial Trap  (“No harm no foul!”)

11. (a) “I deserve this!” or “Just this once!”

14. Self-validating Virtue

18. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”

21. Ethics Accounting (“I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”)

36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming.”

38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!”

53. The Joke Excuse, or “I was only kidding!”

Nor am I especially persuaded that Prof. Miller is being honest in implying that his journal wasn’t exposed as having unprofessionally lax standards. Rationalization #53 is often employed to save face.  The problem is that he would be embarrassed if the publication fell for the hoax, and should be embarrassed if it was complicit in the hoax. Have other journals fallen for equally “obvious” hoaxes?


Here, Prof. Miles,  is what your e-mail should have said, in its entirety:

“I’m sorry, and I apologize on behalf of the Journal. A scholarly scientific journal should never publish a hoax.”

You’re welcome.

 Note: There is an update on this post here


40 thoughts on “What’s More Unethical Than A Web Hoax? How About A Scientific Journal Hoax?

  1. What is it about contemporary society that we are all virtually incapable of admitting we’ve made a mistake? Strange. It may be our litigiousness.

    • How is this any more of a hoax then the average journal article? At least they might it obvious its a hoax and don’t try to sell you their shit drug that does nothing but cause side effects that require more drugs like most of the ghostwritten pharma backed “peer-reviewed” hoax articles.

  2. I try to make it my default position to never believe anything the first time I see it. It’s cynical, but effective in practice if I can do it. Some things I never believe no matter how many times I see it. And, yet I’m a devout Christian. So, clearly I’m capable of believing things I can’t see. Maybe there are other people who view the world in the completely opposite way.

  3. I’ve read enough academic journals to know it is not unheard of to publish something silly, but they had always been marked as such.

    Even Wikipedia places a “This essay is meant to be humorous” on policy pages meant to be silly.

  4. For what it’s worth, I looked up the referenced citation in the British Medical Journal. There was indeed a hoax, back in 2003, one that needed no other explanation since its hoax factor was 100% from the title on: Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge.

    It doesn’t take a scientist to understand the genuine irony of the piece — which is a brief parody of an abstract, by the way, not an article at all) nor the target of that irony: “We think that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.” In other words, the piece had a precise professional target in mind, much less the general public): in Americanese, those scientists who can’t understand the value of observational analysis, go take a flying leap …. Furthermore, an eight-year old could catch on to the BMJ piece — because a 2nd grader — maybe a precocious three-year-old — is able to read and understand the four-letter word “j-o-k-e which appears in the Footnote.

    Dr. Miles needs to apologize to the British Medical Journal for taking their name in the wrong vein.


  5. This post is being discussed on Reddit. Are the commenters on Reddit really mad up of such a large proportion of careless reading cynics and wiseasses? It appears so from my periodic perusals…

  6. “Study of Maternal and Child Kissing (SMACK) Working Group, which they said was a subsidiary of Procter and Johnson, Inc., the maker of “Bac-Be-Gone ointment and Steri-Aids self-adhesive bandages.”

    So this “study” was funded by a manufacturer (Is this a real company? Sounds like a combination of Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble, but that’s another ‘fun’ question) that had a vested interest in the results? Presumably to underscore the importance of their products?

    This is the key: they bought the pseudo-scientists; the scientists bought the journal. Can’t trust anyone. It’s no wonder that “Big Pharma” is the topic of so much conspiracy theory; doctors and researchers fall close behind.

    End of the world stuff.

    • Whoa, wait, what? The Proctor and Johnson, Inc. is a clear reference to a fictitious merger of the aforementioned companies. As far as I can tell, this was another “clue” that the article was fictitious, in that, scientists funded by a company which clearly has a vested interest in the research would absolutely need to declare their significant conflict of interest. I think this statement was also intended to be funny. I read lots of journal articles, though, so maybe it was more obvious to me than someone who doesn’t.

      • You found that funny? People who read a lot of journal articles must be easy pickins for hilarious wits like Gallagher and Pauly Shore. With corporations merging in every field, reading an article that a respected journal told me was legitimate (by publishing it without a warning or disclaimer), I would assume 1) a merger or acquisition 2) a typo 3) ” Huh! There’s really a company called Procter and Johnson!” The last thing I would assume is that a respectable journal that depends on its integrity and credibility would set out to unravel that by betraying its readers’ trust.

        But that’s just me.

        • Um, seriously? You would assume that two of the biggest companies in the world had merged in secret rather than a failure of peer review? Have you not read Science, Nature, or especially PNAS in the past several years?

          • “UM” (jerk), yes, because I have to read and pay attention to a lot of stuff, and miss the damndest things sometimes. A significant event doesn’t have to be “in secret” for me to miss it. I’m so impressed that you are 100% up to speed at all times.

  7. This would be exactly what I teach in Nursing school (evaluating information), so I’m glad for studies like this that provide me with teaching opportunities. Certainly anyone in a 2nd year nursing course or higher should have seen this as a joke study, much in line with the BMJ Christmas edition. The sentence about ethics approval, the unnamed authors, the timing (just as news stories published on April 1 should raise red flags, seeing this on Dec. 29 was my first clue). The intended audience for this journal is other clinicians and academics, not the general public, and the intended audience would presumably be in on the joke. This is especially obvious given that the journal is NOT an OA journal, so only academics are able to read the full text.

    So what I teach still stands: just because something looks “schoarly” doesn’t mean it is a valid source. There is fraud in academic research, there are unintentional errors in academic research, there are predatory journals that will publish any shit that gets sent their way. Never make a judgement based solely on the abstract. Read the damn paper for yourself, especially the methods section. Know enough about the subject, scientific methodology and scientific communication to be able to place the paper in the context of the wider research being done in this area.

    • Which does nothing to stop journalists, who do not know how to read scholarly journals and who typically have the IQ and education of your average DMV clerk, from grabbing the conclusion of a fake “joke” study, publishing it, having lazy members of the public read the headline, and thus add more junk “knowledge” to the culture. How long will it take these allegedly intelligent scholars to figure out that the internet makes inside jokes irresponsible?

      Or are they not as swift as they think they are?

      • If they have low IQs and can’t read scientific journals, they are unqualified to report on scholarly research. You have to be an idiot not to get this as a joke. “Reporters” who reported it as real should lose there jobs for obvious incompetence.

        • You may have missed this, Elaine, but journalists regularly report on matters outside their expertise…most are generalists at best. Again, if someone is an idiot to believe one phony study published by a reputable publication without a disclaimer, one is an idiot to believe any of them.

          Weak, desperate, arrogant argument you have there.

  8. Oops, realized I mistyped scholarly.

    Jack, that’s perhaps more a problem with the ethics of news agencies, than the ethics of the journals and academics. They should not employ journalists to comment on matters they know nothing about. Plenty of reputable science writers exist, who have advanced education in both science and journalism. Dr. Ben Goldacre at the Guardian, Andre Picard at the Globe and Mail… And this would be just as true of the real studies as the fake ones. There are many examples of reputable research done well where the conclusion drawn in the paper does not come anywhere close to the hyperbole added by the media. Just about any study done on diet, for example.

    • Sorry, the scholarly profession can’t duck its responsibility that easily. Like everyone else, scholars must accept that the internet is a reality, journalistic incompetence and recklessness are facts of life, and they, like all of us, can’t blithely go on as if they don’t have to consider such things. This is the web equivalent of false shouting fire in a crowded theater, except it’s shouting credentialed lies in a crowded internet.

  9. Both my spelling and my wit are too slow!

    And I’ll still have to disagree on where the fault lies. The editor of the journal’s response was a bit asshole-y. He should have clarified it was a joke, apologized if someone misinterpreted it and reminded the journalist of the clues that shouldn’t have been missed, so they wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Of course, if the editor was punked and not in on the joke, the article did not go through peer review or sufficient peer review, this is another kettle of fish, but from his response and the date published I’ll suggest that he was.

    Clear communication means varying your methods to suit your audience. The authors and editors had a specific audience in mind, and were communicating in a way that makes sense to those in the in group. The subscription nature of the journal reflected that insider audience. That journalists are internet eavesdropping and possibly misinterpreting portions of the conversation may be a reality but scientists can’t always be expected to communicate in such a way that even someone without a high school chemistry class can understand.

  10. Also, you’ll need to cite a news outlet more reputable than the Daily Caller if you want to claim that some people fell for it. If for some reason you’re not aware, it’s a right-wing rag that’s practically devoted to lies and hoaxes. Anything you read there should be assumed false unless verified elsewhere.

    • Yes, you are a partyist, partisan, biased hack, I must conclude from this comment. The point is that a web source read by a lot of people fell for the hoax as real. Your opinion of the Caller is irrelevant—it is the equivalent of an ad hominem attack. Fact: The Daily Caller took the paper as real, and announced it as such, believing it was. The false “findings” were read as true by TDC’s readership, and your contempt for them doesn’t change that. You really think any website likes to retract reports on hoaxes? Bias makes us stupid: you need to check your own. You only care about a website being deceived if you happen to approve of the web site? Got it.


  11. Seriously, a medical journal publishes a joke paper – as part of a long tradition of said jokes – and you compare it to tricking a patient in to thinking they’re dying? To a judge joking about a death sentence!? That’s unethical hyperbole of a much more pernicious quality*.

    *more by its ubiquity than your use of it here, but still…

    • Yes, not because it is as serious in its consequences (which were not what I was comparing, as I just bet you are smart enough to have figured out, you sly wag) but in its underlying principle: serious professionals don’t get to pull pranks while they are doing their jobs. It’s unethical, and it risks harm.

      This is not , or should not be, so difficult to comprehend.

        • Why don’t you read the comments and the post? That’s a self-evident rationalization, and if you don’t know it, you should. “Everyone who we intended the joke for got it, and everyone else can screw themselves” is the basic argument you raise. Since the merry pranksters do or should know that people will read it who do NOT get the joke, they are responsible for mitigating harm, and, may I add, “DUH.”

          The defenders of this conduct erode the claim that scholars are smart. If everyone the joke is intended to reach KNOWS it’s a joke, what is lost by stating up front, as all web hoaxes are ethically obligated to state, “This is a satire”? Nothing. Unless the idea IS to fool people, and then write snotty comments like yours.

          Pathetic, really.

  12. Are you kidding me? A journal of this nature is considered to be a target for the general public? I can’t see how anyone would consider an article that targets treatment of boo boos as anything other than an intentional and obvious joke. The authors are part of a consortium whose acronym is SMACK? The sponsor sells alternative treatments to a mother’s kiss? Please…

    • I can’t see how anyone would consider an article that targets treatment of boo boos as anything other than an intentional and obvious joke.

      UGH. The fact that you can’t see it is beside the point.

  13. You understand neither the issues involved nor the principals, and hsave not read the post carefully enough nor with sufficient reading comprehension to participate in the debate. Yes, dolt, I know the article was supposed to be hilarious; that’s not even vaguely the issue, not does it excuse the conduct. Never mind. “We’ve always done it like this” is a classic rationalization, but never mind. You’re not worth arguing with; your intro is the pot calling the snowman black.

    Commenters here saying hello for the first time don’t get to call the gracious host names, even if they have a valid point, which you don’t, jackass. Get lost: you’re banned.

    NOTICE everybody! Russell Saunders has been banned for not comprehending a post and calling me a nitwit due to his own inadequacies.

  14. Yes, Jack, why are you always critiquing the ethical implications of things on this ethics blog, you humorless scold? Count me among the embarrased, too.

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