Research woes

The past week has not been a good one for medical research.

Due to the continuing government shutdown, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has had to furlough more than 13,000 employees, about three-quarters of its staff, severely limiting its research efforts.

How limited? While NIH is continuing to admit critically ill patients to existing clinical trials, the flow of patients has slowed to a drip and no new studies are being started, according to the New York Times. Typically, about 200 new patients are enrolled in NIH studies each week, but over the first week of the shutdown, only 12 patients were enrolled.

While current research is being stifled, a documentary that premiered this week about the National Football League (NFL) and concussions alleged the league has a history of trying to influence concussion research in order to downplay the risk of playing football. The PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial,” accompanied by a book of the same name, reported that the NFL worked for two decades to undercut research linking brain damage to playing football by trying to have medical journals retract published work and by publishing its own controversial research that argued concussions were minor and did not lead to brain damage.

Another story about sham research efforts made the list of top stories this week, but the motives behind this bogus research were more noble. Writing for Science, journalist John Bohannon explained how he submitted an intentionally flawed research paper to a number of open access journals as part of a sting operation to expose issues in what Bohannon called “an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.”

The fake paper was submitted under a pseudonym and claimed to have found anticancer properties in a molecule extracted from a lichen. However, the paper’s data did not support the conclusion and Bohannon also injected multiple grammatical errors into the draft.

Of the 304 open access journals to receive the paper, 157 accepted it. Only 36 submissions received peer review that noted the flaws, and even then, 16 journals that noted errors still accepted the paper.

These episodes must be frustrating to all the people who have devoted their lives to producing quality medical research. Hopefully the research efforts currently being derailed by the government shutdown will soon be able to resume and we can get back to reporting how their breakthroughs can improve patient care.


Evan Godt
Editor – Health Imaging