For ‘my’ journal FACT, I review all the new articles that have emerged on the subject of alternative medicine on a monthly basis. Here are a few impressions and concerns that this activity have generated:
- The number of papers on alternative medicine has increased beyond belief: between the year 2000 and 2010, there was a slow, linear increase from 335 to 610 Medline-listed articles; thereafter, the numbers exploded to 1189 (2011), 1674 (2012) and 2236 (2013).
- This fast growing and highly lucrative ‘market’ has been cornered mainly by one journal: ‘EVIDENCE BASED COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE’ (EBCAM), a journal that I mentioned several times before (see here, for instance). In 2010, EBCAM published 76 papers, while these figures increased to 546, 880 and 1327 during the following three years.
- Undeniably, this is big business, as authors have to pay tidy sums each time they get published in EBCAM.
- The peer-review system of EBCAM is farcical: potential authors who send their submissions to EBCAM are invited to suggest their preferred reviewers who subsequently are almost invariably appointed to do the job. It goes without saying that such a system is prone to all sorts of serious failures; in fact, this is not peer-review at all, in my opinion, it is an unethical sham.
- As a result, most (I estimate around 80%) of the articles that currently get published on alternative medicine are useless rubbish. They tend to be either pre-clinical investigations which never get followed up and are thus meaningless, or surveys of no relevance whatsoever, or pilot studies that never are succeeded by more definitive trials, or non-systematic reviews that are wide open to bias and can only mislead the reader.
- Nowadays, very few articles on alternative medicine are good enough to get published in mainstream journals of high standing.
The consequences of these fairly recent developments are serious:
- Conventional scientists and clinicians must get the impression that there is little research activity in alternative medicine (while, in fact, there is lots) and that the little research that does emerge is of poor quality.
- Consequently alternative medicine will be deemed by those who are not directly involved in it as trivial, and the alternative medicine journals will be ignored or even become their laughing stock.
- At the same time, the field of alternative medicine and its proponents (the only ones who might actually be reading the plethora of rubbish published in alternative medicine journals) will get more and more convinced that their field is supported by an ever- abundance of peer-reviewed, robust science.
- Gradually, they will become less and less aware of the standards and requirements that need to be met for evidence to be called reliable (provided they ever had such knowledge in the first place).
- They might thus get increasingly frustrated by the lack of acceptance of their ‘advances’ by proper scientists – an attitude which, from their perspective, must seem unfair, biased and hostile.
- In the end, conventional and alternative medicine, rather than learning from each other, will move further and further apart.
- Substantial amounts of money will continue to be wasted for research into alternative medicine that, whenever assessed critically, turns out to be too poor to advance healthcare in any meaningful way.
- The ones who medicine should be all about, namely the patients who need our help and rely on the progress of research, are not well served by these developments.
In essence this suggests, I think, that alternative medicine is ill-advised and short-sighted to settle for standards that are so clearly below those generally deemed acceptable in medicine. Similarly, conventional medicine does a serious disfavour to progress and to us all, if it ignores or tolerates this process.
I am not at all sure how to reverse this trend. In the long-term, it would require a change of attitude that obviously is far from easy to bring about. In the short-term, it might help, I think, to de-list journals from Medline that are in such obvious conflict with publication ethics.