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Flap over organic food study: Interview with the journal editor

September 13, 2012|By Rosie Mestel
  • An organic food study caused much heat and discussion. The editor of the journal where it was published, Annals of Internal Medicine, tells us what goes into getting an article published there.
An organic food study caused much heat and discussion. The editor of the… (David Karp / For the Los Angeles…)

An organic food study by Stanford researchers has caused quite the ruckus. We wondered what the journal that published the article was making of the brouhaha, so we put in a call.

We figured that the Annals of Internal Medicine, which generally publishes articles with titles like “The Immune Reconstitution Inflammatory Syndrome After Antiretroviral Therapy Initiation in Patients With Tuberculosis: Findings From the SAPiT Trial,” is perhaps not accustomed to public reactions like this.

Then again ...

Editor in chief Dr. Christine Laine reminded us that Annals is the journal that published advice from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that most women under 50 don’t need screening mammograms (2009),  that screening PSA tests should be dumped (in May), and against blood tests aimed at early detection of ovarian cancer (this week).

So the journal is used to stirring up hornets' nests on occasion -- but Laine said this one was different because of “not only the amount of interest but the fact that it’s been sustained, and the vitriol among the critics of the study. Certainly, with other things we’ve published, people have had different views of the results, but they don’t typically call for the paper to be retracted.”

To recap: The Sept. 4 organic food article found very few nutritional differences between organically and conventionally grown food, though it did find some other distinctions, such as in pesticide residue levels, which you can read about here.  

Some organic food enthusiasts, riled by the report and the way that journalists have covered it, levied attacks against the authors, suggesting they or the university is in the pay of food companies. Some even started a petition calling for retraction of the article.

We asked Laine to describe some of the steps involved in getting a research paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

About the review process at the journal: The paper is read by the editor in chief as well as several other editors who work for the journal, and those still under consideration after that are reviewed by two to five external reviewers drawn from about 20,000 academics/physicians and chosen for expertise in the topic of the paper. A statistician also reviews the paper. Required changes are made to the papers before publication. “It’s a pretty rigorous process,” Laine says. Only about 6% of the research papers that are submitted end up being accepted for publication.

About conflict of interest:  Authors are required to fill in a disclosure form noting any conflict of interest, and the article reports what they have said. External reviewers are also asked about conflicts -- and if they have one, the journal looks for another reviewer.  “The system is based on trust -- we do not have the mechanism to go and track down people’s IRS forms and see where they got money from, but we do ask very specific questions and we tell the readers exactly what the authors told us," Laine said. "If something pops up after publication, it’s clear what we asked and what the authors told us. It just makes things more transparent.”

None of the authors of the organic food paper reported a conflict of interest, and the research was not done with any external funding, Laine said. “A lot of work looking at organic foods is funded by an organization or industry that has a potential conflict of interest ... that, as we know from pharmaceutical studies, can create biases that affect the results of the work.”

About reader comments:  Anyone can post comments about the article. These are vetted to make sure they do not include profane language or personal attacks, but that’s it, Laine said. A month after the paper is published, a few of the comments are selected for publication in the journal, and the authors are invited to respond.

About retractions: “In my opinion, this is good work, the review process was rigorous as it always is with materials we publish in Annals, and there really are no grounds that this paper should be retracted," Laine said. "Retracting a paper is for when there is good evidence that it’s invalid” -- for example, when evidence emerges of scientific misconduct such as data falsification.

This does sometimes happen. In a notorious example, a study about energy expenditure after menopause that was published in Annals back in 1995 was retracted after concerns came to light in 2003. The scientist had apparently fabricated data that went into this report and others.  But retractions wouldn't be done just because someone thinks the study should have been done a different way, Laine says. That "should just be scientific discourse."

Finally, to see the reasons why papers at various journals ended up being retracted, there is one-stop shopping to be had at the website Retraction Watch. Among the items you will read there, please don't overlook this one with an awesome hed: "Carrion, my wayward son: Vulture paper from Spanish researcher suspected of misconduct retracted."

Read our science blog at latimes.com/sciencenow and our health blog at latimes.com/boostershots.

Follow me on twitter: @LATimesRosie

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