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Public relations – DC's Improbable Science

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‘We know little about the effect of diet on health. That’s why so much is written about it’. That is the title of a post in which I advocate the view put by John Ioannidis that remarkably little is known about the health effects if individual nutrients. That ignorance has given rise to a vast industry selling advice that has little evidence to support it.

The 2016 Conference of the so-called "College of Medicine" had the title "Food, the Forgotten Medicine". This post gives some background information about some of the speakers at this event. I’m sorry it appears to be too ad hominem, but the only way to judge the meeting is via the track record of the speakers.

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Quite a lot has been written here about the "College of Medicine". It is the direct successor of the Prince of Wales’ late, unlamented, Foundation for Integrated Health. But unlike the latter, its name is disguises its promotion of quackery. Originally it was going to be called the “College of Integrated Health”, but that wasn’t sufficently deceptive so the name was dropped.

For the history of the organisation, see

The new “College of Medicine” arising from the ashes of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health

Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion

The College of Medicine is in the pocket of Crapita Capita. Is Graeme Catto selling out?

The conference programme (download pdf) is a masterpiece of bait and switch. It is a mixture of very respectable people, and outright quacks. The former are invited to give legitimacy to the latter. The names may not be familiar to those who don’t follow the antics of the magic medicine community, so here is a bit of information about some of them.

The introduction to the meeting was by Michael Dixon and Catherine Zollman, both veterans of the Prince of Wales Foundation, and both devoted enthusiasts for magic medicne. Zollman even believes in the battiest of all forms of magic medicine, homeopathy (download pdf), for which she totally misrepresents the evidence. Zollman works now at the Penny Brohn centre in Bristol. She’s also linked to the "Portland Centre for integrative medicine" which is run by Elizabeth Thompson, another advocate of homeopathy. It came into being after NHS Bristol shut down the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, on the very good grounds that it doesn’t work.

Now, like most magic medicine it is privatised. The Penny Brohn shop will sell you a wide range of expensive and useless "supplements". For example, Biocare Antioxidant capsules at £37 for 90. Biocare make several unjustified claims for their benefits. Among other unnecessary ingredients, they contain a very small amount of green tea. That’s a favourite of "health food addicts", and it was the subject of a recent paper that contains one of the daftest statistical solecisms I’ve ever encountered

"To protect against type II errors, no corrections were applied for multiple comparisons".

If you don’t understand that, try this paper.
The results are almost certainly false positives, despite the fact that it appeared in Lancet Neurology. It’s yet another example of broken peer review.

It’s been know for decades now that “antioxidant” is no more than a marketing term, There is no evidence of benefit and large doses can be harmful. This obviously doesn’t worry the College of Medicine.

Margaret Rayman was the next speaker. She’s a real nutritionist. Mixing the real with the crackpots is a standard bait and switch tactic.

Eleni Tsiompanou, came next. She runs yet another private "wellness" clinic, which makes all the usual exaggerated claims. She seems to have an obsession with Hippocrates (hint: medicine has moved on since then). Dr Eleni’s Joy Biscuits may or may not taste good, but their health-giving properties are make-believe.

Andrew Weil, from the University of Arizona
gave the keynote address. He’s described as "one of the world’s leading authorities on Nutrition and Health". That description alone is sufficient to show the fantasy land in which the College of Medicine exists. He’s a typical supplement salesman, presumably very rich. There is no excuse for not knowing about him. It was 1988 when Arnold Relman (who was editor of the New England Journal of Medicine) wrote A Trip to Stonesville: Some Notes on Andrew Weil, M.D..

“Like so many of the other gurus of alternative medicine, Weil is not bothered by logical contradictions in his argument, or encumbered by a need to search for objective evidence.”

This blog has mentioned his more recent activities, many times.

Alex Richardson, of Oxford Food and Behaviour Research (a charity, not part of the university) is an enthusiast for omega-3, a favourite of the supplement industry, She has published several papers that show little evidence of effectiveness. That looks entirely honest. On the other hand, their News section contains many links to the notorious supplement industry lobby site, Nutraingredients, one of the least reliable sources of information on the web (I get their newsletter, a constant source of hilarity and raised eyebrows). I find this worrying for someone who claims to be evidence-based. I’m told that her charity is funded largely by the supplement industry (though I can’t find any mention of that on the web site).

Stephen Devries was a new name to me. You can infer what he’s like from the fact that he has been endorsed byt Andrew Weil, and that his address is "Institute for Integrative Cardiology" ("Integrative" is the latest euphemism for quackery). Never trust any talk with a title that contains "The truth about". His was called "The scientific truth about fats and sugars," In a video, he claims that diet has been shown to reduce heart disease by 70%. which gives you a good idea of his ability to assess evidence. But the claim doubtless helps to sell his books.

Prof Tim Spector, of Kings College London, was next. As far as I know he’s a perfectly respectable scientist, albeit one with books to sell, But his talk is now online, and it was a bit like a born-again microbiome enthusiast. He seemed to be too impressed by the PREDIMED study, despite it’s statistical unsoundness, which was pointed out by Ioannidis. Little evidence was presented, though at least he was more sensible than the audience about the uselessness of multivitamin tablets.

Simon Mills talked on “Herbs and spices. Using Mother Nature’s pharmacy to maintain health and cure illness”. He’s a herbalist who has featured here many times. I can recommend especially his video about Hot and Cold herbs as a superb example of fantasy science.

Annie Anderson, is Professor of Public Health Nutrition and
Founder of the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network. She’s a respectable nutritionist and public health person, albeit with their customary disregard of problems of causality.

Patrick Holden is chair of the Sustainable Food Trust. He promotes "organic farming". Much though I dislike the cruelty of factory farms, the "organic" industry is largely a way of making food more expensive with no health benefits.

The Michael Pittilo 2016 Student Essay Prize was awarded after lunch. Pittilo has featured frequently on this blog as a result of his execrable promotion of quackery -see, in particular, A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor.

Nutritional advice for patients with cancer. This discussion involved three people.
Professor Robert Thomas, Consultant Oncologist, Addenbrookes and Bedford Hospitals, Dr Clare Shaw, Consultant Dietitian, Royal Marsden Hospital and Dr Catherine Zollman, GP and Clinical Lead, Penny Brohn UK.

Robert Thomas came to my attention when I noticed that he, as a regular cancer consultant had spoken at a meeting of the quack charity, “YestoLife”. When I saw he was scheduled tp speak at another quack conference. After I’d written to him to point out the track records of some of the people at the meeting, he withdrew from one of them. See The exploitation of cancer patients is wicked. Carrot juice for lunch, then die destitute. The influence seems to have been temporary though. He continues to lend respectability to many dodgy meetings. He edits the Cancernet web site. This site lends credence to bizarre treatments like homeopathy and crystal healing. It used to sell hair mineral analysis, a well-known phony diagnostic method the main purpose of which is to sell you expensive “supplements”. They still sell the “Cancer Risk Nutritional Profile”. for £295.00, despite the fact that it provides no proven benefits.

Robert Thomas designed a food "supplement", Pomi-T: capsules that contain Pomegranate, Green tea, Broccoli and Curcumin. Oddly, he seems still to subscribe to the antioxidant myth. Even the supplement industry admits that that’s a lost cause, but that doesn’t stop its use in marketing. The one randomised trial of these pills for prostate cancer was inconclusive. Prostate Cancer UK says "We would not encourage any man with prostate cancer to start taking Pomi-T food supplements on the basis of this research". Nevertheless it’s promoted on Cancernet.co.uk and widely sold. The Pomi-T site boasts about the (inconclusive) trial, but says "Pomi-T® is not a medicinal product".

There was a cookery demonstration by Dale Pinnock "The medicinal chef" The programme does not tell us whether he made is signature dish "the Famous Flu Fighting Soup". Needless to say, there isn’t the slightest reason to believe that his soup has the slightest effect on flu.

In summary, the whole meeting was devoted to exaggerating vastly the effect of particular foods. It also acted as advertising for people with something to sell. Much of it was outright quackery, with a leavening of more respectable people, a standard part of the bait-and-switch methods used by all quacks in their attempts to make themselves sound respectable. I find it impossible to tell how much the participants actually believe what they say, and how much it’s a simple commercial drive.

The thing that really worries me is why someone like Phil Hammond supports this sort of thing by chairing their meetings (as he did for the "College of Medicine’s" direct predecessor, the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. His defence of the NHS has made him something of a hero to me. He assured me that he’d asked people to stick to evidence. In that he clearly failed. I guess they must pay well.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

This discussion seemed to be of sufficient general interest that we submitted is as a feature to eLife, because this journal is one of the best steps into the future of scientific publishing. Sadly the features editor thought that " too much of the article is taken up with detailed criticisms of research papers from NEJM and Science that appeared in the altmetrics top 100 for 2013; while many of these criticisms seems valid, the Features section of eLife is not the venue where they should be published". That’s pretty typical of what most journals would say. It is that sort of attitude that stifles criticism, and that is part of the problem. We should be encouraging post-publication peer review, not suppressing it. Luckily, thanks to the web, we are now much less constrained by journal editors than we used to be.

Here it is.

Scientists don’t count: why you should ignore altmetrics and other bibliometric nightmares

David Colquhoun1 and Andrew Plested2

1 University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

2 Leibniz-Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) & Cluster of Excellence NeuroCure, Charité Universitätsmedizin,Timoféeff-Ressowsky-Haus, Robert-Rössle-Str. 10, 13125 Berlin Germany.

Jeffrey Beall is librarian at Auraria Library, University of Colorado Denver.  Although not a scientist himself, he, more than anyone, has done science a great service by listing the predatory journals that have sprung up in the wake of pressure for open access.  In August 2012 he published “Article-Level Metrics: An Ill-Conceived and Meretricious Idea.  At first reading that criticism seemed a bit strong.  On mature consideration, it understates the potential that bibliometrics, altmetrics especially, have to undermine both science and scientists.

Altmetrics is the latest buzzword in the vocabulary of bibliometricians.  It attempts to measure the “impact” of a piece of research by counting the number of times that it’s mentioned in tweets, Facebook pages, blogs, YouTube and news media.  That sounds childish, and it is. Twitter is an excellent tool for journalism. It’s good for debunking bad science, and for spreading links, but too brief for serious discussions.  It’s rarely useful for real science.

Surveys suggest that the great majority of scientists do not use twitter (7 — 13%).  Scientific works get tweeted about mostly because they have titles that contain buzzwords, not because they represent great science.

What and who is Altmetrics for?

The aims of altmetrics are ambiguous to the point of dishonesty; they depend on whether the salesperson is talking to a scientist or to a potential buyer of their wares.

At a meeting in London , an employee of altmetric.com said “we measure online attention surrounding journal articles” “we are not measuring quality …” “this whole altmetrics data service was born as a service for publishers”, “it doesn’t matter if you got 1000 tweets . . .all you need is one blog post that indicates that someone got some value from that paper”. 

These ideas sound fairly harmless, but in stark contrast, Jason Priem (an author of the altmetrics manifesto) said one advantage of altmetrics is that it’s fast “Speed: months or weeks, not years: faster evaluations for tenure/hiring”.  Although conceivably useful for disseminating preliminary results, such speed isn’t important for serious science (the kind that ought to be considered for tenure) which operates on the timescale of years. Priem also says “researchers must ask if altmetrics really reflect impact” .  Even he doesn’t know, yet altmetrics services are being sold to universities, before any evaluation of their usefulness has been done, and universities are buying them.  The idea that altmetrics scores could be used for hiring is nothing short of terrifying. 

The problem with bibliometrics

The mistake made by all bibliometricians is that they fail to consider the content of papers, because they have no desire to understand research. Bibliometrics are for people who aren’t prepared to take the time (or lack the mental capacity) to evaluate research by reading about it, or in the case of software or databases, by using them.   The use of surrogate outcomes in clinical trials is rightly condemned.  Bibliometrics are all about surrogate outcomes.

If instead we consider the work described in particular papers that most people agree to be important (or that everyone agrees to be bad), it’s immediately obvious that no publication metrics can measure quality.  There are some examples in How to get good science (Colquhoun, 2007).  It is shown there that at least one Nobel prize winner failed dismally to fulfil arbitrary biblometric productivity criteria of the sort imposed in some universities (another example is in Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide?).

Schekman (2013) has said that science

“is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best.”

Bibliometrics reinforce those inappropriate incentives.  A few examples will show that altmetrics are one of the silliest metrics so far proposed.

The altmetrics top 100 for 2103

The superficiality of altmetrics is demonstrated beautifully by the list of the 100 papers with the highest altmetric scores in 2013    For a start, 58 of the 100 were behind paywalls, and so unlikely to have been read except (perhaps) by academics. 

The second most popular paper (with the enormous altmetric score of 2230) was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  The title was Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet.  It was promoted (inaccurately) by the journal with the following tweet:

nejm

Many of the 2092 tweets related to this article simply gave the title, but inevitably the theme appealed to diet faddists, with plenty of tweets like the following:

nejm

nejm

The interpretations of the paper promoted by these tweets were mostly desperately inaccurate. Diet studies are anyway notoriously unreliable. As John Ioannidis has said

"Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome."

This sad situation comes about partly because most of the data comes from non-randomised cohort studies that tell you nothing about causality, and also because the effects of diet on health seem to be quite small. 

The study in question was a randomized controlled trial, so it should be free of the problems of cohort studies.  But very few tweeters showed any sign of having read the paper.  When you read it you find that the story isn’t so simple.  Many of the problems are pointed out in the online comments that follow the paper. Post-publication peer review really can work, but you have to read the paper.  The conclusions are pretty conclusively demolished in the comments, such as:

“I’m surrounded by olive groves here in Australia and love the hand-pressed EVOO [extra virgin olive oil], which I can buy at a local produce market BUT this study shows that I won’t live a minute longer, and it won’t prevent a heart attack.”

We found no tweets that mentioned the finding from the paper that the diets had no detectable effect on myocardial infarction, death from cardiovascular causes, or death from any cause.  The only difference was in the number of people who had strokes, and that showed a very unimpressive P = 0.04. 

Neither did we see any tweets that mentioned the truly impressive list of conflicts of interest of the authors, which ran to an astonishing 419 words.

“Dr. Estruch reports serving on the board of and receiving lecture fees from the Research Foundation on Wine and Nutrition (FIVIN); serving on the boards of the Beer and Health Foundation and the European Foundation for Alcohol Research (ERAB); receiving lecture fees from Cerveceros de España and Sanofi-Aventis; and receiving grant support through his institution from Novartis. Dr. Ros reports serving on the board of and receiving travel support, as well as grant support through his institution, from the California Walnut Commission; serving on the board of the Flora Foundation (Unilever). . . “

And so on, for another 328 words. 

The interesting question is how such a paper came to be published in the hugely prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.  That it happened is yet another reason to distrust impact factors.  It seems to be another sign that glamour journals are more concerned with trendiness than quality.

One sign of that is the fact that the journal’s own tweet misrepresented the work. The irresponsible spin in this initial tweet from the journal started the ball rolling, and after this point, the content of the paper itself became irrelevant. The altmetrics score is utterly disconnected from the science reported in the paper: it more closely reflects wishful thinking and confirmation bias.

The fourth paper in the altmetrics top 100 is an equally instructive example.

This work was also published in a glamour journal, Science. The paper claimed that a function of sleep was to “clear metabolic waste from the brain”.  It was initially promoted (inaccurately) on Twitter by the publisher of Science

After that, the paper was retweeted many times, presumably because everybody sleeps, and perhaps because the title hinted at the trendy, but fraudulent, idea of “detox”.  Many tweets were variants of “The garbage truck that clears metabolic waste from the brain works best when you’re asleep”.

science

But this paper was hidden behind Science’s paywall.  It’s bordering on irresponsible for journals to promote on social media papers that can’t be read freely.  It’s unlikely that anyone outside academia had read it, and therefore few of the tweeters had any idea of the actual content, or the way the research was done.  Nevertheless it got “1,479 tweets from 1,355 accounts with an upper bound of 1,110,974 combined followers”.  It had the huge Altmetrics score of 1848, the highest altmetric score in October 2013.

Within a couple of days, the story fell out of the news cycle.  It was not a bad paper, but neither was it a huge breakthrough.  It didn’t show that naturally-produced metabolites were cleared more quickly, just that injected substances were cleared faster when the mice were asleep or anaesthetised.  This finding might or might not have physiological consequences for mice.

Worse, the paper also claimed that “Administration of adrenergic antagonists induced an increase in CSF tracer influx, resulting in rates of CSF tracer influx that were more comparable with influx observed during sleep or anesthesia than in the awake state”.  Simply put, giving the sleeping mice a drug could reduce the clearance to wakeful levels.  But nobody seemed to notice the absurd concentrations of antagonists that were used in these experiments: “adrenergic receptor antagonists (prazosin, atipamezole, and propranolol, each 2 mM) were then slowly infused via the cisterna magna cannula for 15 min”.  Use of such high concentrations is asking for non-specific effects.  The binding constant (concentration to occupy half the receptors) for prazosin is less than 1 nM,  so infusing 2 mM is working at a million times greater than the concentration that should be effective. That’s asking for non-specific effects.  Most drugs at this sort of concentration have local anaesthetic effects, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that the effects resembled those of ketamine.

The altmetrics editor hadn’t noticed the problems and none of them featured in the online buzz.  That’s partly because to find it out you had to read the paper (the antagonist concentrations were hidden in the legend of Figure 4), and partly because you needed to know the binding constant for prazosin to see this warning sign.

The lesson, as usual, is that if you want to know about the quality of a paper, you have to read it. Commenting on a paper without knowing anything of its content is liable to make you look like an jackass.

A tale of two papers

Another approach that looks at individual papers is to compare some of one’s own papers.  Sadly, UCL shows altmetric scores on each of your own papers.  Mostly they are question marks, because nothing published before 2011 is scored.  But two recent papers make an interesting contrast.  One is from DC’s side interest in quackery, one was real science.  The former has an altmetric score of 169, the latter has an altmetric score of 2.

The first paper was “Acupuncture is a theatrical placebo”, which was published as an invited editorial in Anesthesia and Analgesia [download pdf].  The paper was scientifically trivial. It took perhaps a week to write. 

Nevertheless, it got promoted it on twitter, because anything to do with alternative medicine is interesting to the public.  It got quite a lot of retweets.  And the resulting altmetric score of 169 put it in the top 1% of all articles altmetric have tracked, and the second highest ever for Anesthesia and Analgesia

As well as the journal’s own website, the article was also posted on the DCScience.net blog (May 30, 2013) where it soon became the most viewed page ever (24,468 views as of 23 November 2013), something that altmetrics does not seem to take into account.

Compare this with the fate of some real, but rather technical, science.

My [DC] best scientific papers are too old (i.e. before 2011) to have an altmetrics score, but my best score for any scientific paper is 2.  This score was for Colquhoun & Lape (2012) “Allosteric coupling in ligand-gated ion channels”.  It was a commentary with some original material.

  The altmetric score was based on two tweets and 15 readers on Mendeley.  The two tweets consisted of one from me (“Real science; The meaning of allosteric conformation changes http://t.co/zZeNtLdU ”).

The only other tweet as abusive one from a cyberstalker who was upset at having been refused a job years ago.  Incredibly, this modest achievement got it rated “Good compared to other articles of the same age (71st percentile)”.

C&L

Conclusions about bibliometrics

Bibliometricians spend much time correlating one surrogate outcome with another, from which they learn little.  What they don’t do is take the time to examine individual papers.  Doing that makes it obvious that most metrics, and especially altmetrics, are indeed an ill-conceived and meretricious idea. Universities should know better than to subscribe to them.

Although altmetrics may be the silliest bibliometric idea yet, much this criticism applies equally to all such metrics.  Even the most plausible metric, counting citations, is easily shown to be nonsense by simply considering individual papers.  All you have to do is choose some papers that are universally agreed to be good, and some that are bad, and see how metrics fail to distinguish between them.  This is something that bibliometricians fail to do (perhaps because they don’t know enough science to tell which is which).  Some examples are given by Colquhoun (2007) (more complete version at dcscience.net).

Eugene Garfield, who started the metrics mania with the journal impact factor (JIF), was clear that it was not suitable as a measure of the worth of individuals.  He has been ignored and the JIF has come to dominate the lives of researchers, despite decades of evidence of the harm it does (e.g.Seglen (1997) and Colquhoun (2003) )  In the wake of JIF, young, bright people have been encouraged to develop yet more spurious metrics (of which ‘altmetrics’ is the latest).  It doesn’t matter much whether these metrics are based on nonsense (like counting hashtags) or rely on counting links or comments on a journal website.  They won’t (and can’t) indicate what is important about a piece of research- its quality.

People say – I can’t be a polymath. Well, then don’t try to be. You don’t have to have an opinion on things that you don’t understand. The number of people who really do have to have an overview, of the kind that altmetrics might purport to give, those who have to make funding decisions about work that they are not intimately familiar with, is quite small.  Chances are, you are not one of them. We review plenty of papers and grants.  But it’s not credible to accept assignments outside of your field, and then rely on metrics to assess the quality of the scientific work or the proposal.

It’s perfectly reasonable to give credit for all forms of research outputs, not only papers.   That doesn’t need metrics. It’s nonsense to suggest that altmetrics are needed because research outputs are not already valued in grant and job applications.  If you write a grant for almost any agency, you can put your CV. If you have a non-publication based output, you can always include it. Metrics are not needed. If you write software, get the numbers of downloads. Software normally garners citations anyway if it’s of any use to the greater community.

When AP recently wrote a criticism of Heather Piwowar’s altmetrics note in Nature, one correspondent wrote: "I haven’t read the piece [by HP] but I’m sure you are mischaracterising it". This attitude summarizes the too-long-didn’t-read (TLDR) culture that is increasingly becoming accepted amongst scientists, and which the comparisons above show is a central component of altmetrics.

Altmetrics are numbers generated by people who don’t understand research, for people who don’t understand research. People who read papers and understand research just don’t need them and should shun them.

But all bibliometrics give cause for concern, beyond their lack of utility. They do active harm to science.  They encourage “gaming” (a euphemism for cheating).  They encourage short-term eye-catching research of questionable quality and reproducibility. They encourage guest authorships: that is, they encourage people to claim credit for work which isn’t theirs.  At worst, they encourage fraud. 

No doubt metrics have played some part in the crisis of irreproducibility that has engulfed some fields, particularly experimental psychology, genomics and cancer research.  Underpowered studies with a high false-positive rate may get you promoted, but tend to mislead both other scientists and the public (who in general pay for the work). The waste of public money that must result from following up badly done work that can’t be reproduced but that was published for the sake of “getting something out” has not been quantified, but must be considered to the detriment of bibliometrics, and sadly overcomes any advantages from rapid dissemination.  Yet universities continue to pay publishers to provide these measures, which do nothing but harm.  And the general public has noticed.

It’s now eight years since the New York Times brought to the attention of the public that some scientists engage in puffery, cheating and even fraud.

Overblown press releases written by journals, with connivance of university PR wonks and with the connivance of the authors, sometimes go viral on social media (and so score well on altmetrics).  Yet another example, from Journal of the American Medical Association involved an overblown press release from the Journal about a trial that allegedly showed a benefit of high doses of Vitamin E for Alzheimer’s disease.

This sort of puffery harms patients and harms science itself.

We can’t go on like this.

What should be done?

Post publication peer review is now happening, in comments on published papers and through sites like PubPeer, where it is already clear that anonymous peer review can work really well. New journals like eLife have open comments after each paper, though authors do not seem to have yet got into the habit of using them constructively. They will.

It’s very obvious that too many papers are being published, and that anything, however bad, can be published in a journal that claims to be peer reviewed .  To a large extent this is just another example of the harm done to science by metrics  –the publish or perish culture. 

Attempts to regulate science by setting “productivity targets” is doomed to do as much harm to science as it has in the National Health Service in the UK.    This has been known to economists for a long time, under the name of Goodhart’s law.

Here are some ideas about how we could restore the confidence of both scientists and of the public in the integrity of published work.

  • Nature, Science, and other vanity journals should become news magazines only. Their glamour value distorts science and encourages dishonesty.
  • Print journals are overpriced and outdated. They are no longer needed.  Publishing on the web is cheap, and it allows open access and post-publication peer review.  Every paper should be followed by an open comments section, with anonymity allowed.  The old publishers should go the same way as the handloom weavers. Their time has passed.
  • Web publication allows proper explanation of methods, without the page, word and figure limits that distort papers in vanity journals.  This would also make it very easy to publish negative work, thus reducing publication bias, a major problem (not least for clinical trials)
  • Publish or perish has proved counterproductive. It seems just as likely that better science will result without any performance management at all. All that’s needed is peer review of grant applications.
  • Providing more small grants rather than fewer big ones should help to reduce the pressure to publish which distorts the literature. The ‘celebrity scientist’, running a huge group funded by giant grants has not worked well. It’s led to poor mentoring, and, at worst, fraud.  Of course huge groups sometimes produce good work, but too often at the price of exploitation of junior scientists
  • There is a good case for limiting the number of original papers that an individual can publish per year, and/or total funding. Fewer but more complete and considered papers would benefit everyone, and counteract the flood of literature that has led to superficiality.
  • Everyone should read, learn and inwardly digest Peter Lawrence’s The Mismeasurement of Science.

A focus on speed and brevity (cited as major advantages of altmetrics) will help no-one in the end. And a focus on creating and curating new metrics will simply skew science in yet another unsatisfactory way, and rob scientists of the time they need to do their real job: generate new knowledge.

It has been said

“Creation is sloppy; discovery is messy; exploration is dangerous. What’s a manager to do?
The answer in general is to encourage curiosity and accept failure. Lots of failure.”

And, one might add, forget metrics. All of them.

Follow-up

17 Jan 2014

This piece was noticed by the Economist. Their ‘Writing worth reading‘ section said

"Why you should ignore altmetrics (David Colquhoun) Altmetrics attempt to rank scientific papers by their popularity on social media. David Colquohoun [sic] argues that they are “for people who aren’t prepared to take the time (or lack the mental capacity) to evaluate research by reading about it.”"

20 January 2014.

Jason Priem, of ImpactStory, has responded to this article on his own blog. In Altmetrics: A Bibliographic Nightmare? he seems to back off a lot from his earlier claim (cited above) that altmetrics are useful for making decisions about hiring or tenure. Our response is on his blog.

20 January 2014.

Jason Priem, of ImpactStory, has responded to this article on his own blog, In Altmetrics: A bibliographic Nightmare? he seems to back off a lot from his earlier claim (cited above) that altmetrics are useful for making decisions about hiring or tenure. Our response is on his blog.

23 January 2014

The Scholarly Kitchen blog carried another paean to metrics, A vigorous discussion followed. The general line that I’ve followed in this discussion, and those mentioned below, is that bibliometricians won’t qualify as scientists until they test their methods, i.e. show that they predict something useful. In order to do that, they’ll have to consider individual papers (as we do above). At present, articles by bibliometricians consist largely of hubris, with little emphasis on the potential to cause corruption. They remind me of articles by homeopaths: their aim is to sell a product (sometimes for cash, but mainly to promote the authors’ usefulness).

It’s noticeable that all of the pro-metrics articles cited here have been written by bibliometricians. None have been written by scientists.

28 January 2014.

Dalmeet Singh Chawla,a bibliometrician from Imperial College London, wrote a blog on the topic. (Imperial, at least in its Medicine department, is notorious for abuse of metrics.)

29 January 2014 Arran Frood wrote a sensible article about the metrics row in Euroscientist.

2 February 2014 Paul Groth (a co-author of the Altmetrics Manifesto) posted more hubristic stuff about altmetrics on Slideshare. A vigorous discussion followed.

5 May 2014. Another vigorous discussion on ImpactStory blog, this time with Stacy Konkiel. She’s another non-scientist trying to tell scientists what to do. The evidence that she produced for the usefulness of altmetrics seemed pathetic to me.

7 May 2014 A much-shortened version of this post appeared in the British Medical Journal (BMJ blogs)

bmj blog

It seems very reasonable to suggest that taxpayers have an interest in knowing what is taught in universities.  The recent Pittilo report suggested that degrees should be mandatory in Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. So it seems natural to ask to see what is actually taught in these degrees, so one can judge whether it protects the public or endangers them.

Since universities in the UK receive a great deal of public money, it’s easy.  Just request the material under the Freedom of Information Act.

Well, uh, it isn’t as simple as that. 

Every single application that I have made has been refused.  After three years of trying, the Information Commissioner eventually supported my appeal to see teaching materials from the Homeopathy "BSc" at the University of Central Lancashire.  He ruled that every single objection (apart from one trivial one) offered by the universities was invalid.  In particular, it was ruled that univerities were not "commercial" organisations for the purposes of the Act.

So problem solved?  Not a bit of it.  I still haven’t seen any of the materials from the original request because the University of Central Lancashire appealed against the decision and the case of University of Central Lancashire v Information Commissioner is due to be heard on November 3rd, 4th and 5th in Manchester. I’m joined (as lawyers say) as a witness. Watch this space.

UCLan  is not the exception.  It is the rule.  I have sought under the Freedom of Information Act, teaching materials from UClan (homeopathy), University of Salford (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of Westminster (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of West of England, University of Plymouth and University of East London, University of Wales (chiropractic and nutritional therapy), Robert Gordon University Aberdeen (homeopathy), Napier University  Edinburgh (herbalism).

In every single case, the request for teaching materials has been refused. And that includes the last three, which were submitted after the decision of the Information Commissioner.  They will send things like course validation documents, but these are utterly uninformative box-ticking documents.  They say nothing whatsoever about what is actually taught.

The fact that I have been able to discover quite a lot about what’s being taught owes nothing whatsoever to the Freedom of Information Act. It is due entirely to the many honest individuals who have sent me teaching materials, often anonymously. We should be grateful to them. Their principles are rather more impressive than those of their principals.

Since this started about three years ago, two of the universities, UCLan and Salford, have shut down entry to all of their CAM courses. And Westminster has shut two of them, with more rumoured to be closing soon. They are to be congratulated for that, but is far from being the end of the matter. The Department of Health, and some of the Royal Colleges, have yet to catch up with the universities, The Pittolo report, which recommends making degrees compulsory, is being considered by the Department of Health. The consultation ends on November 2nd:  if you haven’t yet responded, please do so now (see how here, and here).

A common excuse: the university does not possess teaching materials (yes, really)

Several of the universities claim that they cannot send teaching materials, because they have no access to them. This happens when the university has accredited a course that is run by another, privately run, institution. The place that does the actual teaching, being private, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

The ludicrous corollary of this excuse is that the university has accredited the course without checking on what is taught, and in some cases without even having seen a timetable.

The University of Wales

In fact the University of Wales doesn’t run courses at all. Like the (near moribund) University of London, it acts as a degree-awarding authority for a lot of Welsh Universities. It also validates a lot of courses in non-university institutions, 34 or so of them in the UK, and others scattered round the world. 

Many of them are theological colleges. It does seem a bit odd that St Petersburg Christian University, Russia, and International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, should be accredited by the University of Wales.

They also validate the International Academy of Osteopathy, Ghent (Belgium), Osteopathie Schule Deutschland,  the Istituto Superiore Di Osteopatia, Milan,  the Instituto Superior De Medicinas Tradicionales, Barcelona, the Skandinaviska Osteopathögskolan (SKOS) Gothenburg, Sweden and the College D’Etudes Osteopathiques, Canada.

The 34 UK institutions include the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine,  the Northern College of Acupuncture and the Mctimoney College of Chiropractic.

The case of the Nutritional Therapy course has been described already in Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy. It emerged that the course was run by a grade 1 new-age fantasist. It is worth recapitulating the follow up.

What does the University of Wales say? So far, nothing. Last week I sent brief and polite emails to Professor Palastanga and to

Professor Clement to try to discover whether it is true that the validation process had indeed missed the fact that the course organiser’s writings had been described as “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” in the Guardian.

So far I have had no reply from the vice-chancellor, but on 26 October I did get an answer from Prof Palastanga.

As regards the two people you asked questions about – J.Young – I personally am not familiar with her book and nobody on the validation panel raised any concerns about it. As for P.Holford similarly there were no concerns expressed about him or his work. In both cases we would have considered their CV’s as presented in the documentation as part of the teaching team. In my experience of conducting degree validations at over 16 UK Universities this is the normal practice of a validation panel.



I have to say this reply confirms my worst fears. Validation committees such as this one simply don’t do their duty. They don’t show the curiosity that is needed to discover the facts about the things that they are meant to be judging. How could they not have looked at the book by the very person that they are validating? After all that has been written about Patrick Holford, it is simply mind-boggling that the committee seems to have been quite unaware of any of it.

It is yet another example of the harm done to science by an unthinking, box-ticking approach.

Incidentally, Professor Nigel Palastanga has now been made Pro Vice-Chancellor (Quality) at the University of Wales and publishes bulletins on quality control. Well well.

The McTimoney College of Chiropractic was the subject of my next  Freedom of Information request to the University of Wales. The reasons for that are, I guess, obvious. They sent me hundreds of pages of validation documents, Student Handbooks (approx 50 pages), BSc (Hons) Chiropractic Course Document. And so on. Reams of it. The documents mostly are in the range of 40 to 100 pages. Tons of paper, but none of it tells you anyhing whatsover of interest about what’s being taught. They are a testament to the ability of universities to produce endless vacuous prose with
very litlle content.

They did give me enough information to ask for a sample of the teaching materials on particular topics. But I gor blank refusal, on the grounds that they didn’t possess them. Only McTimoney had them. Their (unusually helpful) Freedom of Information officer replied thus.

“The University is entirely clear about the content of the course but the day to day timetabling of teaching sessions is a matter for the institution rather than the University and we do not require or possess timetable information. The Act does not oblige us to request the information but there is no reason you should not approach McTimoney directly on this.”

So the university doesn’t know the timetable. It doesn’t know what is taught in lectures, but it is " entirely clear about the content of the course".

This response can be described only as truly pathetic.

Either this is a laughably crude form of obstruction of my request, or perhaps, even more frighteningly, the university really believes that its endless box-ticking documents actually provide some useful control of quality. Perhaps the latter interpretation is more charitable. After all, the QAA, CHRE, UUK and every HR department share similar delusions about what constitutes quality.

Perhaps it is just yet another consequence of having science run largely by people who have never done it and don’t understand it.

Validation is a business. The University of Wales validates no fewer than 11,675 courses altogether. Many of these are perfectly ordinary courses in universities in Wales, but they validate 594 courses at non-Welsh accredited institutions, an activity that earned them £5,440,765 in the financial year 2007/8. There’s nothing wrong with that if they did the job properly. In the two cases I’ve looked at, they haven’t done the job properly. They have ticked boxes but they have not looked at what’s being taught or who is teaching it.

The University of Kingston

The University of Kingston offers a “BSc (Hons)” in acupuncture. In view of the fact that the Pittilo group has recommended degrees in acupuncture, there is enormous public interest in what is taught in such degrees, so I asked.

They sent the usual boring validation documents and a couple of sample exam papers . The questions were very clinical, and quite beyond the training of acupuncturists.  The validation was done by a panel of three, Dr Larry Roberts (Chair, Director of Academic Development, Kingston University), Mr Roger Hill (Accreditation Officer, British Acupuncture Accreditation Board) and Ms Celia Tudor-Evans (Acupuncturist, College of Traditional Acupuncture, Leamington Spa).   So nobody with any scientific expertise, and not a word of criticism.

Further to your recent request for information I am writing to advise that the University does not hold the following requested information:

(1) Lecture handouts/notes and powerpoint presentations for the following sessions, mentioned in Template 3rd year weekend and weekday course v26Aug2009_LRE1.pdf

(a) Skills 17: Representational systems + Colour & Sound ex. Tongue feedback 11

(b) Mental Disease + Epilepsy Pulse feedback 21

(c) 18 Auricular Acupuncture

(d) Intro. to Guasha + practice Cupping, moxa practice Tongue feedback 14

(2) I cannot see where the students are taught about research methods and statistics. I would like to see Lecture handouts/notes and PowerPoint presentations for teaching in this area, but the ‘timetables’ that you sent don’t make clear when or if it is taught.

The BSc Acupuncture is delivered by a partner college, the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (CICM), with Kingston University providing validation only. As such, the University does not hold copies of the teaching materials used on this course. In order to obtain copies of the teaching materials required you may wish to contact the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine directly.

This completes the University’s response to your information request.

So again we see that Kingston has validated the course but has not seen a timetable, far less what is taught.  My reply was thus

Yes I am exceedingly unhappy about it.  The university attaches its name to the course so it must obviously be able to get the material simply by asking for it (I’m surprised that the university should endorse a course without knowing what is taught on it, but that’s another matter).

I request formally that you obtain this material.  If necessary please read this as a formal appeal.

I await with interest. In every single case so far, the internal review has merely confirmed the initial refusal.  It means a bit of a delay before the case goes to the Information Commisssioner’s Office.

Napier University Edinburgh

Napier University runs a "BSc (Hons) Herbal medicine". (brochure here).  Since herbal medicine is a subject of the Pittilo recommendations, there is enormous public interest in what they teach. So I asked, under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (2002).  They sent quite quickly validation and accreditation documents, some examination papers, timetables and lecture lists.

The validation was the usual vacuous box-ticking stuff though it did reveal that the course “made extensive use of techniques such as tongue and pulse diagnosis”, which are well known phoney diagnosis methods, about as much use as a pendulum (as used at Westminster University).

As at Kingston University, the exam papers they chose to send were mostly "pretend doctor" stuff. One of them was

Discuss the herbal practitioner’s role in the management of IHD [ischaemic heart disease)

How one would like to see what the students said, and, even more one would like to see the model answer.  Amateurs who try to treat potentially serious conditions are a danger to the public.

So then we got to the interesting bit, the request for actual teaching materials.

I have looked at the material that you sent and I’d now like to make the following supplementary request

(A) Lecture notes/handouts and powerpoint slides for the following small smaple of lectures

HRB09102 Materia Medica 4
(1) Zingiber officinalis, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Valeriana officinalis
(2) Gelsemium sempervirens, Cimicifuga racemosa, Datura stramonium, Piscidia erythrina
(3) Betula pendula, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Ephedra sinica, Solidago virgaurea

Materia Medica 3 HRB08103
(1) Cardiovascular system
(2) Nervous system

Clinical Medicine and Diagnosis 4 (HRB09104)
(1) Neuro-sensory deficits, paraesthesiae, head pain

HRB09100 Materia Medica & Herbal Practice
Week 7  Compiling a therapeutic plan and prescription building

BSc Herbal Medicine : Materia Medica HRB07102
Week 3   History of Herbal Medicine Gothean tasting session
Week 10  Energetics  the basic concepts Ayurveda

Lastly, I can see nowhere in the timetable, lectures that deal with

Research methods, clinical trial design and statistics.
If such lectures exist, please send notes and powerpoints for them too

No prizes for guessing the result   Total refusal to send any of them.  To make matters worse, the main grounds for refusal were the very "commercial interests" which, after careful legal examination, the Information Commissioner (for England and Wales) had decided were invalid.  They say too that "The public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in its release".. It is hard to see how the public interest is served by concealing from the people who pay for the degrees what is taught on degrees that Pittilo wants to make compulsory. [Download the whole response]

The matter is now under internal appeal (read the appeal) and eventually we shall find out whether the Scottish Information Commissioner backs the judgement.

Robert Gordon University Aberdeen

This case has particular interest because the Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University is Professor Michael Pittilo, chair of the highly contentious steering group that recommended degress in CAM.  Robert Gordon University (RGU) does not teach herbal medicine or acupuncture. But they do run An Introduction to Homeopathy. All the degrees in homeopathy have closed. It is perhaps the daftest and most discredited of all the popular forms of Magic Medicine.  But Professor Pittilo thinks it is an appropriate subject to teach in his university.

So again I asked for information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. They sent me quite quckly a list of the powerpoint presentations used on the courses [download it]. I asked for a small sample of the powerpoints.  And again the university did not possess them!

I should like to see only the following three powerpoint presentations in the first instance, please.

Please can you let me know also who produced the powerpoints.

(1) Evidence for homeopathy
(2) First aid remedies
(3) Allergies

I note that you will have to request them but since they are being offered as part of a course offered by RGU, so RGU is responsible for their quality, I presume that this should cause no problem.

The request was refused on much the same grounds as used by Napier University.  As usual, the internal review just confirmed the initial proposal (but dropped the obviously ludicrous public interest defence).  The internal review said

“it is mainly the quality of our courses (including course material) and teaching which has given us the position of "the best modern university in Scotland"

I am bound to ask, if the university is so proud of its course material, why is it expending so much time and money to prevent anyone from seeing a small sample of it?

My appeal has been sent to the Scottish Information Commissioner [download the appeal].

What are vice-chancellors thinking about?

I find it very difficult to imagine what is going through the heads of vice-chancellors who run courses in mumbo-jumbo.   Most of them don’t believe a word of it (though Michael Pittilo might be an exception) yet they foist it on their students. How do they sleep at night?

Recently the excellent Joe Collier wrote a nice BMJ blog which applauded the lack of respect for authority in today’s students, Joe Collier says good riddance to old-fashioned respect. I couldn’t resist leaving a comment.

I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing quite so unnerving as being addressed as “Sir”.

It is an advantage of age that you realise what second-rate people come to occupy very grand positions. Still odder since, if occasionally they are removed for incompetence, they usually move to an even grander position.

I guess that when I was an undergraduate, I found vice-chancellors somewhat imposing. That is, by and large, not a view that survives closer acquaintance.

Should teaching materials be open to the public?

There is only one university in the world that has, as a matter of policy, made all of its teaching material open to the public,  that is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  I can recommend strongly course 18.06, a wonderful set of lectures on Linear Algebra by Gilbert Strang.  (It is also a wonderful demonstration of why blackboards may be better than Powerpoint for subjects like this). Now they are on YouTube too.

A lot of other places have made small moves in the same direction, as discussed recently in Times Higher Education, Get it Out in the Open

Now the OU is working with other British universities to help them develop and share open course materials. In June, at the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the OU, Gordon Brown announced funding to establish the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education at the OU, as part of a £7.8 million grant designed to enhance the university’s national role.

The funding follows a separate grant of £5.7 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for universities across the sector to make thousands of hours of free learning materials available. 

Much material is available on the web, when individual teachers choose to place it there, but at the same time there is a move in the other direction. In particular, the widespread adoption of Moodle has resulted in a big decrease in openness. Usually you have to be registered on a course to see the material. Even other people in the university can’t see it. I think that is a deplorable development (so, presumably, does HEFCE).

Conclusion

I was told by the Univerity of Kingston that

“The course is one which the University has validated and continues to be subject to the University’s quality assurance procedures, such as internal subject reviews, annual monitoring and external examining”

The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that “quality arrurance procedures” work about as well in universities as they did in the case of baby Peter. No doubt they were introduced with worthy aims. But in practice they occupy vast amounts of time for armies of bureaucrats, and because the brain does not need to be engaged they end up endorsing utter nonsenes. The system is broken.

Resistance is futile.  You can see a lot of the stuff here

It is hard to keep secrets in the internet age. Thanks to many wonderful people who have sent me material. you can see plenty of what is taught, despite the desperate attempts of vice-chancellors to conceal it.  Try these links.

What is actually taught

Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1950

Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help top stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself 
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2007

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients 
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043

More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time its Naturopathy
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1812
 
The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1329
 
The opposite of science
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1191
 
Bad medicine. Barts sinks further into the endarkenment.
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1143
 
A letter to the Times, and progress at Westminster
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=984
 
Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=260
 
Westminster University BSc: amethysts emit high yin energy
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=227
 

References for Pittilo report consultation
 
A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=235

The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title)
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article4628938.ece

Some follow up on the Times piece
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=251

The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1284

One month to stop the Department of Health endorsing quackery.  The Pittilo questionnaire,
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2310

An excellent submission to the consultation on statutory regulation of alternative medicine (Pittilo report) 
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2329

Follow-up

Des Spence, a general practitioner in Glasgow, has revealed a memorandum that was allegedly leaked from the Department of Health. It was published in the Britsh Medical Journal (17 June 2009, doi:10.1136/bmj.b2466, BMJ 2009;338:b2466). It seemed to me to deserve wider publicity, so with the author’s permission, I reproduce it here. It may also provide a suitable introduction to a forthcoming analysis of a staff survey.

Re: The use of ‘note pads’ in the NHS and allied service based agencies.

Hi, all care providers, managers of care, care managers, professions allied to care providers, carers’ carers, and stakeholders whose care is in our care. (And a big shout to all those service users who know me.)

We report the findings from a quality based review, with a strong strategic overview, on the use of “note pads” across all service user interfaces. This involved extensive consultation with focus groups and key stakeholders at blue sky thinking events (previously erroneously known as brain storming). This quality assured activity has precipitated some heavy idea showers, allowing opinion leaders to generate a national framework of joined-up thinking. This will take this important quality agenda forward. A 1000 page report is available to cascade to all relevant stakeholders.

The concentric themes underpinning this review are of confidentiality. Notes have been found on the visual interface devices on computers and writing workstations throughout the NHS work space. Although no actual breach of confidentiality has been reported, the independent external consultants reported that note pads “present a clear and present danger” to the NHS, and therefore there is an overarching responsibility to protect service users from scribbled messages in felt tip pen. Accordingly all types of note pads will be phased out in the near time continuum. A validated algorithm is also attached to aid this process going forward.

This modernising framework must deliver a paradigm shift in the use of note pads. Care provider leaders must employ all their influencing and leverage talents to win the hearts and minds of the early adopter. A holistic cradle to grave approach is needed, with ownership being key, and with a 360 degree rethink of the old think. All remaining note pads must be handed over in the next four week ” note pad armistice” to be shredded by a facilitator (who is currently undergoing specialist training) and who will sign off and complete the audit trail.

(Please note that the NHS’s email system blocks all attachments, so glossy, sustainable, wood based hard copies will be sent directly to everyone’s waste recycling receptacles.)

Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2466


Spence added a footnote, Note: The BMJ’s lawyers have insisted that I make it clear that this is a spoof, just in case you were wondering.

 

Here are a few more

There is an initiative underway to determine what we do as an organisation in the realms of drug discovery. The intention is to identify internal and appropriate external capabilities to foster a pipeline of competencies that enable some of our basic research outputs to better impact healthcare.

Follow-up