[Note: An update from 25 Sept 09 is at bottom]
Here’s a sad mess. It seems a
potentially important finding — that getting a seasonal flu shot might
increase risk of contracting the swine flu — is being sat on by a
journal, with the authors forbidden from talking about it, until they
get through the slo-mo publishing process.
The finding may or
may not be accurate. But as it regards an important issue, it needs to
be vetted and discussed openly, with the data at hand, as soon as
possible. But it’s not.
This is a tricky situation, to be
sure. There are, at least theoretically, both good and bad reasons to
withhold this information. But it seems to me the bad outweigh the good
here, and both science and the public interest would benefit from a
full airing of this study asap. At minimum, the journal holding the paper (which journal’s id we don’t even know) should state its reasons for doing so. I hope they’re good ones.
The good argument for
withholding this information is that the journal’s peer reviewers need
time to finish their review. Okay as far as it goes — only in this case, I don’t think it goes very far. For many subjects, three peer reviewers is about all you’re going to muster to vet a paper. But in a case this
urgent and high-profile, you’d get a much more thorough airing if you released the thing, for scores of epidemiologists — whole armies of them, actually, all over the world — would be eager to help out. Unless there’s something we’re missing here, it woulud seem much more helpful to let these
findings get vetted out in the open, by the entire epidemiological
community, by publishing the study and the underlying data online asap so that
a little open science can be done. Let the hivemind at it.
Instead, we get rumors of an unsettling finding — and a process that just flat looks bad.
And this gets us to the bad reasons for sitting on a paper like this: the proprietary embargo disguised as careful review. As a
journalist, I run into this all the time. Findings — non-peer-reviewed so far,
yes, but still of interest and often based on substantial work, and
very often already aired in public at conferences and meeting — can’t be
discussed “on the record” because … well, because the journal
wants to be the one to break the story. Particularly
upsetting is that the authors aren’t allowed to talk to the press about
their findings, having been forbidden to do so by the journals. This gag practice is
not so much in the interest of ensuring accuracy as it is of ensuring a
splash when the journal publishes the paper.
I find it hard to fault
the scientists in these cases; they know well that if they break a
journal’s gag order, their chances of publishing again at that journal
are quite slim. This is questionable enough in any case, and especially
given that science is ultimately a collaborative endeavor. But when
issues of public health are clearly and directly at stake, it’s
particularly hard to defend.
Here’s the thread; see what you make of it yourself.
Here’s the main news kernal, from the ever-alert ace flu reporter Helen Branswell:
The Canadian Press
Unpublished Canadian data are raising concerns about whether it’s a good idea to get a seasonal flu shot this season.
from a series of studies from British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario, the
data appear to suggest that people who got a seasonal flu shot last
year are about twice as likely to catch swine flu as people who didn’t.
scientific paper has been submitted to a journal and the lead authors –
Dr. Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Centre for Disease
Control and Dr. Gaston De Serres of Laval University – won’t speak to
the media. Journals bar would-be authors from discussing their results
publicly before they go through peer review.
few people appear to have actually seen or read the study, the puzzling
findings have been a poorly kept secret and many in the public health
community in Canada have heard about them.
shouldn’t be something that flu experts feel compelled to discuss sotto
voce. If the journal has good reasons to sit on the paper for now, it
should declare them. If not, it should get the paper out in the open so
the data and findings can be examined and vetted openly.
Update 9/25/09, 9:25 am EST: Two things:
- As per my comment below, I was glad to read this morning a thread at FluTrackers
that the CDC and Health Canada will be discussing this whole flap this
afternoon — apparently at 1:30 pm EST by the CDC and 2:00pm EST by
Health Canada (though I can’t find those at the CDC and Health Canda
sites!). Not clear whether they’ll make the paper public or whether the journal will step up.
- Helen Branswell reports this morning that the (rumored/unconfirmed) small f findings have led Canadian officials to decide to delay seasonal flu shots for most people until after the H1N1 shots become available in November, so that the latter, being given earlier, can work without any possibility of, ah, influence from the former, now to be given later.
Nobody said this would be simple. I’ll say this: I’m glad I’m writing about this and not calling the shots.