Trial By Error: Another Letter About BMJ’s Music Therapy Study

By David Tuller, DrPH

I am still waiting for answers from BMJ about the Norwegian study of cognitive behavior therapy plus music therapy for treatment of chronic fatigue in adolescents after mononucleosis. The study was published in BMJ Paediatrics Open. I have written about it here.

This morning I sent the following letter to the BMJ research integrity coordinator who had responded to the initial letter from me as well as four colleagues–Jonathan Edwards from University College London, Vincent Racaniello and Mady Hornig from Columbia, and John Swartzberg from Berkeley. These colleagues have been cc’d on my exchange with the research integrity coordinator, along with the journal’s editor-in-chief, BMJ’s editorial director, and a Norwegian journalist who has written about the study. My letter is below.

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Dear Ms Ragavooloo:

I am touching base to ask again about the status of BMJ’s inquiry into the trial of cognitive behavior therapy combined with music therapy as a treatment for chronic fatigue in adolescents after acute EBV infection. The trial was erroneously published as a feasibility study, among other flaws, and one of BMJ’s peer reviewers acknowledged not having read “beyond the abstract.”

My colleagues and I first wrote BMJ about this paper’s multiple flaws almost two months ago. Two weeks ago, you informed us that the matter was still being reviewed. You provided no time frame for taking steps to fix the problems. 

Clinicians and parents seeking information about treatments for sick children and coming across this paper would have no idea that it did not pass BMJ’s strict peer review process. It is concerning that the study remains in the public domain without any warning to alert readers that it has not been vetted by BMJ’s own high standards. BMJ’s imprimatur implies legitimacy and credibility. If an article has not earned that assumption of legitimacy and credibility because the peer review process was broken, BMJ should make that clear to readers immediately, or at the very least in a timely manner, to prevent the dissemination of potentially harmful misinformation.

That has not happened so far. At this point, can you please provide some time frame for resolving this situation? And in the meantime, would you consider informing readers with a highly visible notice that the study has not actually been through a valid peer review process?

Best–David

David Tuller, DrPH
Senior Fellow in Public Health and Journalism
Center for Global Public Health
School of Public Health
University of California, Berkeley 

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Richard Vallee 21 July 2020, 1:44 pm

    The inevitable conclusion of BMJ’s inaction so far is that it is perfectly in line with BMJ’s notion of “quality control” for half the reviewers on a paper to openly declare not to have actually read the paper, making it clear the substance of what is in the papers is immaterial. Maybe that’s what’s behind Michael Sharpe trademark remarks of: “have you read the paper?” is actually because the peer reviewers don’t and someone ought to?

    At the very least it’s not a concern, as it took people outside the process to alert them to a sentence in simple English that is very clear and unambiguous. Maybe half the reviewers of the reviews read the actual reviews? If a peer review falls in the woods and nobody read it, did it really happen?

    That’s quite a motto: “At BMJ, half our peer reviewers actually read the papers and that’s how we like it”. Or brand it with Sharpe’s thought-terminating cliché and go straight to: “At BMJ, have you read the papers we publish? Because half our reviewers don’t”.

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