It is clear that if you want to get a so-so paper published in a top tier journal, the best way to do it is to write about a breaking medical news event and get there first. We saw this with avian influenza and SARS and now it’s being repeated with swine flu. The Scientist had a story yesterday about how The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and Science, two of the highest profile science journals in the world, pushed through some swine flu papers at record speed last week:
An international research team led by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London published a report online today (May 11) in Science showing that the current outbreak is on par or less hazardous than previous influenza pandemics. The researchers analyzed data from late April and found that the virus’ transmission rate and clinical severity are not as bad as seen during the 1918 Spanish flu but are similar to other 20th century pandemics. Although the study was received and published in less than a week, “the paper was subjected to usual standards during the rigorous review process,” Natasha Pinol, a Science spokesperson, said in an email.
Last Thursday (May 7), a team of epidemiologists from US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) chronicling all 642 reported cases of human infection with the virus dating from April 15 to May 5. This analysis detailed the most common symptoms of the disease and showed that young people might be particularly susceptible to infection. “We knew this was important and we wanted to get it out,” Edward Campion, NEJM’s senior deputy editor and online editor, told The Scientist. The paper underwent a full peer review process, but each review “was compressed into a day or two.” (Elie Dolgin, The Scientist)
Like many other scientists interested in the topic I read the papers as soon as they appeared. The NEJM articles were highly pertinent and informative and their expedited publication certainly warranted. The modeling paper by Neil Ferguson and his colleagues I’m not so sure about. It was certainly competent work. This group are experienced modelers. Science knew this paper would make a splash as it had no scientific competition and interest was high. Those are both reasons to publish and reasons to take some care in publishing. It’s not that the paper isn’t worthwhile or makes no contribution at all. It’s that by expediting its publication it gave it more prominence, importance and weight than it deserved considering its content and the uncertainties.
Science was publishing a scientific paper, which is its mission, but it was also promoting itself and so was Ferguson. Science isn’t alone. Nature did the same thing with a Ferguson paper last year and I noted it then, too:
When a prestigious scientific journal, Nature, publishes such a paper, it also gets attention it wouldn’t get if published in a more appropriate place — meaning a place where its scientific contribution could be judged in the usual way, not under the glare of global publicity. (Effect Measure, April 14, 2008)
In the case of the recent paper by Fraser et al. (which I am calling the Ferguson paper and which I discussed here the day it came out), the data are just too preliminary and tentative to be really useful. Just because a computer model was used doesn’t make it any more reliable. Of course if it took longer to publish it probably wouldn’t be publishable, either, because we would know more about what this virus is doing and the actual data would supersede the computer-aided tea-leaf reading. Science can say it went through the same rigorous peer-review process, but it clearly didn’t. The usual peer review process would have said, “yes, this is competently done but it is premature. Let’s wait to see how this evolves.” The paper was rushed into print because getting there first was the idea, for the authors and the journal. It’s hard to identify any real contribution it made to our understanding.
The NEJM papers, by contrast, were chock full of actual data and important information. Yes, NEJM also wants to promote itself. In this case it found a more appropriate way to do it.