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.”
Note: There is an update on this post here