By David Tuller, DrPH
A day of reckoning could be coming for Bristol University and Professor Esther Crawley, the ethically challenged pediatrician whose work has come under official scrutiny (that is, under scrutiny from people with greater authority than me) on multiple fronts. According to the Health Research Authority, the National Health Service unit that oversees research ethics (or in this case, the lack of research ethics), Bristol’s supposedly “independent” investigation of Professor Crawley’s decision to exempt multiple studies from ethical review on the questionable grounds that they were “service evaluation” is due out this week–more than three months late. That’s on top of the massive “correction/clarification” posted in July by Archives of Disease in Childhood about the methodological violations involved in the conduct and reporting of the pediatric study of the woo-woo Lightning Process.
I have written dozens of blog posts about these two egregious studies. Instead of acting like a bonafide Russell Group university and addressing serious questions about breaches of the scientific process by high-profile investigators, Bristol has generally taken a more Sopranos-like approach by complaining about my “behaviour” to my own academic institution. The university agreed to undertake this current review of Professor Crawley’s studies only after being pressed to do so by the HRA, which took my concerns seriously. I am extremely curious to see how Bristol will choose to explain the anomalies of these purported “service evaluation” studies. (I have discussed at length elsewhere the differences between “research,” which requires ethical review, and “service evaluation,” which does not.)
In the case of the dung-heap otherwise known as the Lightning Process trial, BMJ has engaged in what I consider to be editorial misconduct in “correcting” and “clarifying” the study while leaving the original findings intact. The decision to republish the exact same results can only be regarded as a self-serving and craven effort to avoid accountability for having published this nonsense in the first place. My presumption is that, with the upcoming report, Bristol will try to protect itself and Professor Crawley in similar fashion. That would be unfortunate, but my expectations are low. Perhaps I will be surprised and the “independent” investigation will turn out to have been independent after all.
In the school absence study, at least, the violations are shocking. If any experienced investigator actually believes she has the right to interview more than 100 minors and their families without any ethical review, she has no place being involved in research at all. And certainly the senior author of such a research paper has no place being the lead author for Cochrane’s new risk of bias tool. I cannot stress enough how disturbing it is to many distinguished researchers that investigators from Bristol have engaged in such behavior, and that their missteps have been enabled and endorsed by one of Britain’s most renowned publishers of medical research. My colleagues at Berkeley and elsewhere cannot fathom why BMJ and its editorial director, Dr Fiona Godlee, are choosing to engage in actions that demonstrate such indifference to their own professed scientific standards, not to mention the health and well-being of children.
In any event, I thought my October 19th talk in Oxford (not at Oxford) went pretty well–thanks to the Oxfordshire ME Group for Action, or OMEGA, for organizing it! During the talk, I noted that, as a public health professional, I have a right to share my thoughts on possible research and editorial misconduct. (I made sure to note as well that no one has deputized me to make such pronouncements in any official capacity–these are just my own opinions, although I know many other academics who share my views.) I pointed out that tearing up papers in public is a legitimate way of expressing those opinions. I also pointed out that there are legal remedies for libel and harassment, a fact well known to those who have accused me of such things.
And yes, I reprised my “signature” act of academic performance art–as a finale, I ripped up the Lightning Process paper and tossed the shreds in the air. Thanks to my friend and colleague Jonathan Edwards, professor emeritus at University College London, for providing me with the print-out! The video of the talk will be posted in the near future.