By guest blogger Les Rose
This is a follow-up to Edzard’s post back in October last year, about a paper by Christina Ross, entitled “Energy Medicine: Current Status and Future Perspectives”. You will see from the post, and from the paper itself, that it is a curious mish-mash of scraps of real science and a large volume of speculative and invented garbage. Its opening gambit majors on physics, which caught the attention of Richard Rasker, who has a background in medical instrumentation, and whose comments were insightful and excoriating.
Edzard and I wrote to the editors of the journal, pointing out the paper’s misleading content and requesting a retraction. In particular, we asked if the paper had been reviewed by a physicist. Here is what they responded:
“This paper underwent appropriate scientific peer review. We don’t intend to retract the paper, but we encourage you to submit an official Letter to the Editor through the Journal’s website. This approach would give the author of this paper the opportunity to respond to your critiques.”
This was received on 28th October 2020. Note that they did not answer our question about a review by a physicist. The journal limits letters to 500 words, and the paper warranted rather more analysis than that, so in partnership with Richard, we posted a detailed critique on my own blog. The plan was to refer to the blog post in the letter, which we submitted on 12th November. We suggested that the paper’s poor scientific underpinnings (to put it mildly) should be sufficient reason for retraction. At the very least, we requested that our critique and the paper itself be subjected to proper scientific review, and that our letter be published alongside the paper. Well here we are five months later and still, our letter has not been published.
The journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine specialises in so-called `integrative medicine’, which is a euphemism for shoehorning quackery into mainstream practice without the inconvenience of doing rigorous research. It publishes papers on such groundbreaking disciplines as shamanic journeying and intention host devices. The joint editors are in post at Wake Forest School of Medicine, where Christina L Ross, the author of the paper at issue, is on the staff.
But let’s return to the main story. Our letter was submitted in the usual way via the Manuscript Central website, and its status remains at `awaiting reviewer selection’. We have never heard of a letter to the editor requiring peer review. One month after submitting it, ie 12th December, SAGE Publishing finally acknowledged receiving our letter, and told us it was under review from their legal team and their editors. It seemed odd that it needed legal review. I replied thus on 20th December:
“Thanks for the update. We wrote directly to the editors asking them to retract the paper, but they refused, and advised us to write a letter for publication. This was so that the author could reply publicly. We still want that to happen. I am not sure why this is a legal matter, it is about science. In the interests of transparency, please tell us when our letter will be published.”
By 9th January 2021, there was no reply to this, so I chased up SAGE Publishing, who replied on 12th:
“The status in the system is misleading, as your Letter is not in need of any peer review. As you are aware, SAGE provides Editors and/or authors with the opportunity to respond to any Letters we receive. If they choose to do so, it is our policy that the Letter and any responses are published together all at once. However, before any adequate response can be put together, an investigation of the issues raised must first be completed. Although you are correct that this is not a Legal matter,
the nature of the complaints we have received prompted us to seek their guidance, and we will be publishing a Statement of Concern on this article while finishing this investigation. Your Letter has been waiting out this process, which unfortunately has taken slightly longer than usual due to all of the recent holidays and office closures. I do appreciate that you are anxious to see this matter resolved, and am sorry for any further frustration this has caused. The original author has been given a deadline to provide her comments, and upon receiving her response, your Letter will be published immediately. I expect this will happen within the next 2-3 weeks, but can certainly keep you updated going forward.”
The emphasis is mine. I asked what happens if the author doesn’t wish to respond, and was told that “we would then move forward with publishing your Letter on its own”. The deadline for the author to respond was stated to be “the end of next week”, ie 22nd January. So I was fully expecting the letter to be published a few days after that, and certainly by the end of January. But on 27th I was told that the author did not want to respond, and that they “do not yet have a firm publication date to share, but I have a meeting to discuss this with the Editors this week”. So the assurance highlighted above, about immediate publication, was valueless.
A few days later, on 31st January, an expression of concern was published, stating that several(!) complaints about the science of the paper had been received. By 17th February I was getting somewhat exasperated, and wrote again to the publishing editor:
“I am trying to be patient, but I really don’t see why a letter to the editors can take months to be published, in this day and age. Other journals such as the BMJ publish rapid responses in hours. I realise that our letter is critical of your journal’s peer review process, but delaying publication for so long does not look good. Surely you can publish the letter and respond in some way as publisher of the article in question? Some sort of response seems appropriate, in view of the original author’s silence. As we have raised this issue, readers may well appreciate some insight into your peer review process.
“I note that the journal’s editors are colleagues of the author. How do you manage this conflict of interest?”
The publishing editor did not reply directly to this, and passed it to the joint editor in chief Professor Remy Coeytaux. After a further two weeks I still had not heard anything from either party, so again I chased them up. The reply from Professor Coeytaux on 3rd March is worth reading in full:
“I ask for your forgiveness and understanding for the time this process is taking. By way of introduction and explanation, I am the co-Editor-in-Chief who has collaborated with Dr. Christina Ross in the past. Our other co-Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Suzanne Danhauer, has no relationship with the author of the paper in question. As is typical for medical journals, Global Advances in Health and Medicine does not have a policy that precludes members of the same academic institution as the Editors-in-Chief from submitting manuscripts for review and possible publication.
“Manuscripts submitted to the Journal are assigned to either Dr. Danhauer or myself. We then assign the manuscripts to Associate Editors as indicated. Dr. Ross’ manuscript was assigned to Dr. Danhauer. I had no role whatsoever in the peer review process or decision making for this manuscript. Throughout that process, there was no conflict of interest to manage. To re-iterate, Dr. Danhauer had no conflict with Dr. Ross and I had no involvement in any way or at any time in or with the peer review process.
“All of us at the Journal are taking your concerns seriously. Dr. Danhauer and I have complementary scientific expertise. She is a psychologist by training, while I am a physician and epidemiologist by training. We decided that I should be the one to manage the process of arriving at the most appropriate resolution to the concerns that you have brought to our attention. Your Letter to the Editor was assigned to me, and I am personally managing the process of seeking independent input from an additional set of peer reviewers for Dr. Ross’ original paper. By “personally,” I mean that I have not relegated this important task to one of our Associate Editors.
“We have very nearly completed the process on our end. We are awaiting the comments of one final peer reviewer. We expect to have that process completed within the next three weeks.
“I should also note that we believe it is appropriate for us to wait to publish your Letter to the Editor until we have completed our internal review process that we initiated in response to your concerns. It is for this reason that we have not yet published your Letter. I would like to take this opportunity to ask you, please, to send me another copy of your Letter to the Editor after deleting the reference to the internet link. It is the Journal’s policy to not publish such links. I would like to ask you, please, to send the revised letter to me directly in a PDF format via email attachment.
“Thank you for engaging in this scientific discourse and for your patience during the process.”
Some of this is very odd. He admits to being Ross’ collaborator but says this is not a conflict of interest. The journal’s instructions for authors do not say anything about `internet links’. It is perfectly normal for academic papers to use URLs as references. This looks suspiciously like an exercise in damage limitation. Hence I deleted the embedded hyperlink in the text and added the URL as a reference at the end. I replied the next day, and asked whether the current peer reviewers include those from outside the field of complementary and/or alternative medicine. I have not heard anything further from Professor Coeytaux or the publisher.
Is it really so time-consuming to find an authoritative reviewer? I put the word out, and got a response from Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE FRS FinstP. He is a very well-known TV presenter on science topics, and as well as an eminent physicist and a professor for the public engagement in science. He could not be more appropriate to review this paper, and here is what he said:
“This notion that the body has ‘different kinds of energy’ is utter nonsense and a clear sign that someone does not have a firm background in science. If we do want to explore what different kinds of energy living organisms have then we can say there is kinetic energy due to macroscopic motion controlled by, say, muscles, then there is thermal energy due to vibrations of the molecules within our cells, chemical energy due to the thousands of biochemical reactions taking place inside cells, and finally electromagnetic energy from for example, the tiny induced magnetic fields due to moving charged particles in ion channels. None of these forms of energy is mysterious and the wording in this paper referring to detecting ‘subtle energies’ or resonances is utterly unscientific. While scanners, such as MRI, x-ray, PET or CT machines can image the body by measuring interactions with, for example, magnetic fields or responses to bombarding electromagnetic radiation, there is no mystery here. We know how they work. After all, it was physicists who invented these machines based on our understanding of the laws of physics. To buy into any of the notions in this paper would mean that the whole edifice of modern physics has to be demolished and rebuilt. And if anyone thinks that may be necessary then I would argue they really have not studied science at all and do not understand the scientific method.
“Basically, the science that this paper challenges is the very science that has allowed us to understand the workings of the body in the first place. You cannot call upon science (quantum field theory) to justify unscientific ideas that would mean that quantum field theory has to be thrown away. Also, using scientific jargon to make something sound clever when it’s not should not fool anyone, and certainly not serious scientific research journals.”
One has to wonder how Ross obtained a degree in physics. I sent this to Professor Coeytaux on 22nd March, pointing out how quick and easy it was to get such a review. I said that the paper had obviously not received “appropriate scientific review”, and asked for a response by return explaining the status of our letter. You guessed it, I have heard nothing.
I always try to go for the ball and not the player, but it’s worth looking in a bit more detail at Christina Ross’ academic credentials. She styles herself as Dr, but her PhD is from Akamai University in Hawaii. Although the university proudly displays a statement of accreditation, it is from the Accreditation Service for International Schools Colleges and Universities (ASIC). This is not listed by the US Department of Education as a recognised accreditation body. It is actually a UK company that validates visas for international students, but its credibility is quite doubtful:
“The legitimacy of ASIC’s international accreditation service is unclear and some of its internationally-accredited institutions have been deemed ‘diploma mills’ offering worthless qualifications.”
Ross is also a `Board Certified Polarity Practitioner’. Americans love the term `board certified’, it lends considerable gravitas. But anyone can set up a board and issue certificates. What is polarity therapy? Well, as is usual with quackery, it is a personality cult, which combines various evidence-free modalities and doesn’t clearly say what use it is. I don’t think I need to look into `Certified Energy Medicine Practitioner’ any further.
So this is what happens when pseudoscience is called out in academia. SAGE Publishing is obviously not a bit concerned about science, despite their assurances, or they would never have launched a journal such as this. The editors do not worry about conflicts of interest or scientific evidence. They try to obfuscate when detailed criticism is published. The author does not even attempt to defend what she has written. I assume all of them are hoping that we will get weary of this and give up. They are wrong about that as well.