November 4, 2016
Fiona Godlee, MB, BChir, BSc
Dear Dr. Godlee:
It has now been more than a year since the BMJ published Nina Teicholz’s article, “The scientific report guiding the US dietary guidelines: is it scientific?” on September 23, 2015. It has been a year since more than 180 scientists wrote to the BMJ on November 5, 2015, citing 11 factual errors in the article and requesting that it be retracted. (The letter omitted incorrect or biased interpretations of research.)
On November 19, 2015—shortly after receiving the scientists’ letter requesting the retraction—BMJ Executive Editor Theodora Bloom posted a response saying that an external expert review of the letter was being undertaken and “details of the review process will be available shortly.”
We are still waiting for those details.
Since then, we have repeatedly requested information about the status of the review. On May 25, 2016, you emailed: “This process has taken longer than I had hoped, but we are nearly in a position to release the outcome of the post-publication review of Nina Teicholz's article. All being well, we should be able to do this in the next three weeks and certainly before the end of June.”
On September 23, 2016, Politico reported that, according to Ms. Teicholz, the BMJ will not retract the piece. Ms. Teicholz then told the website Retraction Watch that she learned of this decision from the BMJ in April 2016: “The journal’s reason was that the outside reviewers found that the criticism of the methods used by [the Dietary Guidelines advisory] committee ‘are within the realm of scientific discussion, and are therefore not grounds for retraction.’”
Our first concern is with the BMJ’s lack of transparency. Promised details of the review process were never made public. Apparently, a decision was reached and communicated to the author, but never communicated either to the 180-plus scientists who raised the issue or to BMJ readers. In fact, if Ms. Teicholz is correct, more than a month after the apparent decision, you affirmatively failed to communicate that decision while leaving the impression that deliberations continued (see quote above).
Our larger concern is that the BMJ has never released the report of the independent review panel or the journal’s response to the report. Did the review panel find errors? If so, will the journal explain how the errors came to be published, despite its peer review and editorial process? Who were the members of the independent review panel, who were the initial peer reviewers, and how were each selected? If the BMJ concludes that the Teicholz article had additional errors, how will the journal act to prevent similar errors in the future? Will the journal release all correspondence between the author and the BMJ staff members to ensure that the pre- and post-publication review process is transparent?
The BMJ’s failure to respond to the retraction letter is particularly disturbing in view of the journal’s response to the independent statins review panel and audit convened after the BMJ published two articles containing errors on the adverse effects of statins in October, 2013. In an editorial announcing your decision to convene the statins panel, you wrote, “I have committed to implementing the panel’s recommendations in full.” Yet the steps that the BMJ promised to take in 2014 were not in evidence in 2015. For example:
- Respond in timely fashion. In August, 2014, the independent statins review panel recommended that the BMJ conduct an audit to “identify what would need to have been in place to ensure that the correction was made in a more timely fashion.” That untimely response took seven months. But it has been one year (to date) and the BMJ has still not responded to the scientists’ letter.
- Give extra attention to controversial issues. The independent review panel on statins recommended that “extra attention should be given to manuscripts that have been noted by reviewers and editors to be controversial and potentially slanted or one-sided.” In response, the BMJ editors wrote that “additional flags and warnings are now put in place for particularly controversial articles, both on the manuscript tracking system and via discussion at team meetings.” Furthermore, the review panel recommended that editors give extra attention to “possible selective citing of material, failure to critically appraise evidence that is used to support authors’ arguments, and over criticism of evidence that does not support authors’ arguments.” The BMJ stated that “editors are now alerted to consider these issues in particular in controversial articles, and to ask reviewers to do so.” Surely, Teicholz’s article, which charged that the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee “used weak scientific standards,” would warrant this additional scrutiny. Yet, judging by the errors cited in our letter and the correction and two clarifications posted in 2015 (not to mention the numerous spelling errors in the supplements), the “flags and warnings” for controversial articles were either not in place or were ignored.
- Resist pressure to meet outside news agendas. The BMJ’s audit of its handling of the statins papers concluded that the “BMJ editors should resist pressure to publish at a time suited to the general media, authors and their institutions, or other external parties. Extra care should be taken whenever there is a ‘news agenda’ that is not dictated by the journal, or when news cycles drive publication timing.” In fact, the Teicholz article, which was published on September 23, 2015, noted that “these issues will likely come to a head at a Congressional hearing on the guidelines in October, when two cabinet secretaries are scheduled to testify.” Again, given the errors, posted corrections, and misspellings, it appears that the journal did not take “extra care” to resist pressure to meet an outside news agenda.
Finally, let’s be clear that the scientists’ letter requested a retraction because of 11 straightforward errors. Surely, it should take less than a year for a journal to publish the results of its external expert review of those errors. Surely, the journal should have acted promptly to correct any errors and diminish any damage they or the Teicholz article have done to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the integrity of the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, and the public’s confidence in diet advice from scientific experts and the U.S. government.
Surely, it is high time for the BMJ to respond.
Bonnie F. Liebman, M.S.
Director of Nutrition
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Center for Science in the Public Interest