By David Tuller, DrPH
What kind of researchers would publish obviously misleading figures about their favorite intervention in a study abstract? And who would make causal claims in a paper while simultaneously pointing out that the study design does not allow for causal claims? Well, it seems Professor Sir Wessely and Professor Trudie Chalder, along with three of their colleagues from King’s College London, would do both of those things.
Another question is why would the purportedly rigorous Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine publish a paper that included misleading figures in a study abstract and made unwarranted causal claims? What happened with the peer review process that such obvious failings were not noticed, or not revised if they were? Did the journal recognize that it would need to be especially rigorous when reviewing a paper co-authored by the sponsoring society’s immediate past president, and that any weaknesses exposed later on would reflect especially badly on all involved?
And beyond all those questions is this one: Why would the investigators, the journal or anyone put themselves in the embarrassing position of publishing a study as bad and misleading as “Cognitive behavioural therapy for chronic fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome: Outcomes from a specialist clinic in the UK” in the first place? My epidemiology colleagues on the public health faculty at UC Berkeley would be horrified and wonder where they went wrong if their students turned in homework as abysmal as this Wessely-Chalder co-venture.
This paper was spectacularly easy to critique–it almost read like a parody. Once again, as with the PACE trial, core members of the biopsychosocial ideological brigades have produced something that seems designed for use as a case study of how NOT to conduct research. Why are they still foisting nonsense like this upon the public and seeking to influence medical practice with such flawed argumentation?
When the bogus Wessely-Chalder study first appeared last year, I gave it a tough critique in a blog post. After that, my friend and colleague Brian Hughes, a psychology professor at National Ireland University Galway, and I wrote what started off as a letter but ended up as a full-fledged commentary. We submitted it to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, but it was politely declined. I don’t think either of us was surprised by the rejection, although it was nonetheless dispiriting–a sign that the journal, its editor, and presumably the investigators had no intention of taking responsibility for the problems we had documented. That failure to take responsibility represents a violation of the norms of proper scientific inquiry.
We were delighted that the Journal of Health Psychology was interested in reviewing our critique, and ultimately publishing it. As can be seen by comparing the version we posted on a pre-print server with the one released by the journal, we have added a strong critique of the deficient peer review process to which the Wessely-Chalder study was subjected. The authors have done themselves a real disservice by publishing their findings in a journal with such close ties to one of them, if that association was a factor in the inadequacy of the review process. As a result, the good professors and the journal have all scored an own goal.