Guest post by Alan Henness
When I discovered a homeopath admitting on camera that she believed she and her fellow homeopaths had managed to unblind a triple-blinded homeopathy trial they were taking part in, I submitted a complaint to the journal that published the paper on the trial, the university of the researcher who had conducted the trial and the current university of the homeopath who had subsequently moved into research.
The paper concerned is the 2004 paper by Weatherley-Jones et al. A randomised, controlled, triple-blind trial of the efficacy of homeopathic treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. This was published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.
The homeopath was Clare Relton, currently Senior Lecturer in Clinical Trials at the Centre for Primary Care and Public Health at Queen Mary University of London and Honorary Senior Research Fellow, School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield.
She gave a presentation at the 2019 conference of the Homeopathy Research Institute. Billed as an International Homeopathy Research Conference, it was subtitled, Cutting edge research in homeopathy. The videos of the conference were sponsored by homeopathy manufacturing giant, Boiron.
My complaint email (see below) explains what I discovered and sets the context. As a result of the investigation by the journal, the current editor along with two former editors have just published a peer-reviewed paper on my complaint and their investigation:
Misconduct and unethical behaviour
It’s worth noting how serious the Journal of Psychosomatic Research considered the misconduct they identified by Relton and others. From the Results section of the paper:
We found the presentation by Dr. Relton disturbing on multiple grounds. This admission of unethical behavior calls her scientific integrity into question. The premise for her actions rests on an errant assumption widespread among clinicians, based on anecdotal experience, that one possesses an ultimate knowledge of what works and doesn’t work without the need for rigorous study. The history of medicine, unfortunately, has been littered by countless treatments that practitioners believed in and dispensed, only to be later found not beneficial or even harmful . This underscores the importance of rigorous study for treatments where equipoise exists in the scientific community, as it arguably did for the use of homeopathy for chronic fatigue syndrome. Dr. Relton likely did not hold that equipoise herself, but if she had ethical concerns about the study, the appropriate action would have been to not participate in it. Instead, she purports to have enlisted colleagues to deliberately and systematically undermine the study.
In watching the presentation, the purpose of this admission seemed to be to discount the results of a rigorous but essentially negative study in the context of promoting her own ideas related to trial design. While we cannot know for certain that her motivation was to discount the results of this study, what she said clearly seeks to undermine the credibility of a trial whose results challenged her firmly held but untested beliefs about the benefit of a treatment that she had high allegiance to. Regardless of her intent or what actually happened during the trial, Dr. Relton’s presentation is ipso facto evidence of either an admitted prior ethical breach or is itself an ethical breach for the following reasons. Either she indeed undermined an ambitious effort to study of the efficacy of homeopathy for chronic fatigue syndrome, negating the work of all other investigators, study staff, and participants involved in the study as well as the investment of the public, or she is conducting a late and inappropriate attack on the study’s credibility. Her presentation certainly warrants formal censure from the scientific community, and this paper may contribute to that. Despite this clear indictment, after discussing and considering the complaint of Mr. Henness for several months, we ultimately decided not to retract the paper.
They decided not to retract the paper but instead use it for ethical reflection. However, they concluded I had highlighted “undisputable evidence of scientific misconduct” by the homeopaths concerned:
When is lack of scientific integrity a reason for retracting a paper? A case study
Objective: The journal received a request to retract a paper reporting the results of a triple-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial. The present and immediate past editors expand on the journal’s decision not to retract this paper in spite of undisputable evidence of scientific misconduct on behalf of one of the investigators.
Methods: The editors present an ethical reflection on the request to retract this randomized clinical trial with consideration of relevant guidelines from the committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) applied to the unique contextual issues of this case.
Results: In this case, scientific misconduct by a blinded provider of a homeopathy intervention attempted to undermine the study blind. As part of the study, the integrity of the study blind was assessed. Neither participants nor homeopaths were able to identify whether the participant was assigned to homeopathic medicine or placebo. Central to the decision not to retract the paper was the fact that the rigorous scientific design provided evidence that the outcome of the study was not affected by the misconduct. The misconduct itself was thought to be insufficient reason to retract the paper.
Conclusion: Retracting a paper of which the outcome is still valid was in itself considered unethical, as it takes away the opportunity to benefit from its results, rendering the whole study useless. In such cases, scientific misconduct is better handled through other professional channels.
The authors had additional ethical concerns:
Apart from the intention of ‘circumventing the blind’, there is another unethical aspect to the behavior of Dr. Relton, namely the fact that patients were systematically subject to an intervention (carcinosin administration) that was not part of the original research protocol and to which they did not consent as part of the study. Although the systematic administration of carcinosin was not part of the study protocol, it was administered only to patients taking part in the study, and because they took part in the study. Presumably, these patients were not properly informed, or maybe even misinformed, about the rationale of a double-blind trial design and/or the true reason for administrating carcinosin. Apparently, ‘deep listening and deep understanding’ does not necessarily need to be accompanied by an honest and open attitude towards patients that participate in research. Dr. Relton stated in her lecture ‘I’m not trained to be deceiving people’, but that is exactly what she did. Not only did she deceive patients, but also the researchers and study leaders that she is supposed to collaborate with as a colleague. [emphasis in original]
The authors said:
The authors are of the opinion that in case the misconduct was not conducted by or on behalf of the principal investigator – as is the case here -, the initiative for further action should lie with them. Not only is the principal investigator the one that was deceived, but they are in a better position to report the misconduct to the institution and funding body. If the principal investigator is responsible for the misconduct, the editor is probably the only one that can initiate further action, in which case the researcher’s institution should be informed and requested to take appropriate action.
It will be interesting to see what further action, if any, is taken by Weatherley-Jones as is suggested.
I had already brought my concerns to the attention of both the University of Sheffield and Queen Mary University of London. The former concluded:
This is to confirm that the University of Sheffield has now completed its assessment of this matter, and it has been agreed that it would not be appropriate for the University of Sheffield to undertake a research misconduct investigation of the allegation against Clare Relton, since she is not a current member of University staff, nor was she a member of staff at the time of the clinical trial in question.
In relation to the potential concerns about the reliability of the published research findings, the University is satisfied that the Journal of Psychosomatic Research is consulting with the authors and taking steps to address the concerns as appropriate. The University will therefore be taking no further action.
I received no response from Queen Mary University of London, despite their Principal being copied in on all the relevant correspondence.
I will be writing again to both and Weatherley-Jones now the paper has been published.
My thanks to Jess G. Fiedorowicz, Editor, Journal of Psychosomatic, for his thorough investigation of my complaint.
The results of a trial were published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 2004 (see attached copy):
A randomised, controlled, triple-blind trial of the efficacy of homeopathic treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome
Elaine Weatherley-Jones a,*, Jon P Nicholl a, Kate J Thomas a, Gareth J Parry a, Michael W McKendrickb, Stephen T Green b, Philip J Stanley c, Sean PJ Lynch d
a Medical Care Research Unit, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, Regent Court, 30 Regent Street, Sheffield, S1 4DA, UK
b Communicable Diseases Directorate, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, UK
c Seacroft Hospital, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Leeds, UK
d St. James’s University Hospital, University of Leeds, Beckett Street, Leeds, UK
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +44-114-222-0744; fax: +44-114-222-0749.
E-mail address: e.weatherley-jones@sheffield.
The paper is indexed in PubMed here.
Elaine Weatherley-Jones is listed as the Corresponding author at the Medical Care Research Unit, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield as are others.
One of the homeopaths involved in providing treatment was Clare Relton, currently Senior Lecturer in Clinical Trials at the Centre for Primary Care and Public Health at Queen Mary University of London.
The full list of those involved in providing treatment during the trial is given as:
The Homeopathic Trials Group: Homeopaths— Gill de Boer, MBChB, MFHom, Maryjoan Foster, RSHom, Susanne Hartley, RSHom, Jane Howarth, BRCPHom, Pat Mayborne RSHom, Georgina Ramsayer RSHom, Clare Relton, RSHom, Pat Strong, MBBS, MFHom, Angela Zajac, BSc, RSHom, BRCPHom.
Dr Relton gave a talk at the Conference in London of the Homeopathy Research Institute held 14 to 16 June 2019. The video of her talk has recently been published: https://www.
I invite you to watch all 30 minutes of it.
She then goes on to describe how she took part as one of the homeopaths in the trial and relates how she came up with “a cunning way of circumventing the blinding”.
I offer the following transcript of the segment of her talk where she discusses this (all transcription errors are mine):
So while I was still a homeopath in the Wellforce clinic, a researcher from the University of Sheffield which was actually only five minutes away from my clinic which was really handy came along and said, “I’ve got some money from Lord Sainsbury to do a trial of chronic fatigue syndrome of homoeopathy” and she described the design and I remember thinking, “not sure what that’s going to show”.
But anyway there were ten homeopaths recruited in Sheffield and Leeds and we saw patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.
A lot of us were getting patients with chronic fatigue syndrome anyway and particularly if they were never been well since glandular fever couple of doses of carcinosin 30 or 200 and they seem to make a really good recovery.
So we’re pretty confident about taking part in this trial.
So there were 130 or 140 patients recruited to the trial and then allocated to the homeopaths: there were five at our clinic and I was one of them.
Patients would arrive; you would do the normal thing, have the consultation with them. They seemed a bit standoffish, they were quite distant – I couldn’t work out why.
And then at the end of the consultation I had to say to them “well there’s a 50% chance that whatever I prescribe you is going to be a placebo”, which sort of sort of lowered the temperature in the in the in the Consulting room because you know they came because they have chronic fatigue; they came… didn’t come because they wanted to take part in an experimental game.
So we would ring the pharmacy up and tell them our prescription. Helios Pharmacy would then send out either placebo or the real remedy according to the allocation of the patient.
The patient would come back four weeks later and if they were better, great and if they weren’t it was really, really difficult. So, had I got the wrong prescription or were they on placebo?
So after about six months of this we started working out there was a cunning way of circumventing the blinding and we worked out, well if we give them all a dose of carcinosin they’re going to have some reaction: there’s going to be a dream there’s going to be some change and if when they come back at the second appointment they haven’t changed then we know they’re on placebo. So don’t bother doing all that trying to find the right remedy; just use all your other amazing skills you have as a homeopath: the deep listening we have the deep understanding of what we know about what’s toxic in our systems, about diet and counselling.
So that’s what we did. Because we’re homeopaths. We’re trained to treat people I’m not trained to be deceiving people. That’s what I do, that’s what I did then; that’s what all my colleagues did.
So ok, so the trial ended and at the end the results came out I’m sure quite a few of us are familiar with it.
There were two groups, so there was a group… everybody in the patient… everybody in the trial received treatment… a course of treatment by a homeopath and 50% of them received a placebo remedy 50% the real remedy, the verum.
And the results… both groups got better and the group that received the real remedy improved better than the group that received the placebo but was the difference clinically significant? Not quite. How many trials do we have that? So this trial was so much realisation, so many questions came out of my experience being inside, inside a double-blind placebo randomised controlled trial. What is seen as the… you know the… summit of evidence-based medicine in terms of rigorousness, I just thought “what is this doing?” I don’t know what… I don’t know what this has shown.
This is what’s called an explanatory trial and I thought well it’s explaining nothing to me, apart from the fact that the system for designing and conducting randomised controlled trials at the moment isn’t working.
So lots of questions.
The paper states:
Patients were successfully blinded to their group allocation, and therefore we have assumed that whatever the reasons for nonresponse, they are the same for the treatment arm and the placebo arm and that the data are comparable. Therefore, intention to treat analyses was done on actual data plus imputed missing item data, but all unit missing data were excluded from analyses.
Checking of double blinding showed that prediction of treatment group was made by neither homeopaths (j =. 07, P c.60) nor patients (j = 0.11, P c.48).
The trial was of a triple-blind design but there is no mention of the deliberate attempts to circumvent the blinding in the paper. The effects on participants by the actions – inadvertent or otherwise – of Relton and her colleagues are not considered and not known.
I believe the actions of Relton, the other four homeopaths at her clinic whom she clearly implicates in this circumvention of blinding, and possibly the remaining four homeopaths if they were all known to each other and in contact with each other since they were all in the same area of Leeds/Sheffield, compromised the trial design, rendered the results unreliable and seriously undermined the integrity of the paper and its conclusions. I do not believe it matters whether or not they were in fact able to circumvent the blinding, but it does matter that Relton and others believed they had because she admits it led to different behaviour on their part resulting in contamination of the results.
I believe the actions amount to misconduct.
I note additional criticism of this paper by Prof Edzard Ernst (see attached).
I ask that Sheffield University investigate this matter and that along with Queen Mary University of London and the Editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Jess Fiedorowicz, MD, PhD, decide what actions to take. I ask that consideration is given to retracting this unsound paper.
Please consider this email as a formal complaint against Dr Clare Relton and others.
Please acknowledge receipt by return and keep me informed of your progress in investigating this matter and of your conclusions and outcome.
If you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.