Tobacco Control Researcher Calls for Boycott of Journal, Apparently Because the Editor Supports E-Cigarettes for Harm Reduction

In a comment posted on Dr. Stan Glantz’s blog yesterday, Dr. Thomas Eissenberg–a researcher studying electronic cigarettes at Virginia Commonwealth University–called for a boycott of the journal Addiction because of his claim that the editor of the journal exhibited bias in fast-tracking an article that reported low levels of aldehydes in e-cigarette aerosol.

Specifically, Dr. Eissenberg called for researchers to boycott the journal by not submitting articles to it and not reviewing for it “until it has published the means by which it will manage the apparent conflicts of conscience among its editorial staff…”. Presumably, Dr. Eissenberg is referring to what he views as a significant conflict of interest of the journal’s editor–Dr. Robert West–who he claims violated the peer review process in fast-tracking a 2015 article that defended e-cigarettes against the claim that they expose users to high levels of formaldehyde.

The situation is a bit complex, so let me try to summarize the background as best as I understand it:

In May 2015, Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos and colleagues published an article in Addiction which reported the results of an experiment showing that e-cigarettes only produce aldehydes (such as formaldehyde, a carcinogen) under dry puff conditions. A dry puff occurs when a vaping device overheats the e-liquid, resulting in an unpleasant taste. Most vapers will discontinue vaping when they experience a dry puff. Therefore, if aldehydes are present only under dry puff conditions, then they do not present a major health concern for vapers.

In September 2015, Dr. Eissenberg–along with Dr. Alan Shihadeh and Soha Talih–published a letter to the editor of Addiction in which they accused him of having a “conflict of conscience” that led to a lack of rigorous peer review and inappropriate fast-tracking of the Farsalinos et al. article. The authors’ complaint was two-fold: (1) that the review period was only 11 days, which is uniquely brief for this journal; and (2) that the editor–Dr. West–has a significant conflict of interest because he was once quoted in a newspaper article as (according to Eissenberg et al.) stating that: “E-cigarettes are about as safe as you can get… E-cigarettes are probably about as safe as drinking coffee.”

Eissenberg et al. went on to accuse Dr. West of exhibiting bias in handling what they call a “flawed” manuscript: “These statements suggest a potential conflict of conscience in the handling of a flawed report that reinforces Dr West’s professed faith in e-cigarette safety…”.

Addiction published the extremely long letter by Eissenberg et al. (which itself is unusual), along with a response from Dr. West stating that the accusation is false because he didn’t even handle the paper: he designated the review to a different editor. Moreover, the paper went through the same peer review process as any other paper (although it was fast-tracked because of particular urgency of this topic). In fact, the authors went through not one, but two rounds of revisions before the manuscript was accepted for publication.

That is where the story stood until yesterday, when Dr. Eissenberg called for the boycott of the journal, apparently sticking to his accusation against Dr. West despite West’s response.

The Rest of the Story

Ironically, while Dr. Eissenberg is accusing Addiction of unscientific and biased actions that threaten scientific integrity, it is actually Dr. Eissenberg’s actions here that are inappropriate, biased, and a threat to scientific integrity.

First, Dr. Eissenberg makes a serious accusation against the editor of Addiction without sufficient evidence to justify the claim. He (and his co-authors) provide no substantial evidence that the peer review process was botched, that the Farsalinos et al. article was seriously flawed, or that a severe bias on the part of the editor led to a botched review and acceptance of an article that should not have been published.

As it turns out, Dr. West apparently had no role in the review of the manuscript, so Dr. Eissenberg’s accusation was incorrect. Moreover, the paper did go through the normal review process, although in expedited fashion. It is perfectly legitimate for journals to fast-track articles of particular interest, and many journals do that all the time. The article was peer reviewed and the authors were required to respond to reviewer comments twice. Thus, there was nothing qualitatively different about this peer review process from the review of any other paper submitted to the journal. No evidence is provided to support the accusation that the review process was flawed in any way.

Dr. West ended his response by stating: “I hope that this will give them (Eissenberg et al.) pause for thought before making serious accusations about colleagues.” I agree. The allegations against the editor and the journal were serious but no evidence was provided to support them. Making an unjustified accusation and then calling for a boycott of the journal based on that unsupported allegation is the threat to scientific integrity in this story.

Second, Eissenberg et al.’s claim that Dr. West has a “conflict of conscience” because he believes e-cigarettes are relatively safe is a perversion of the concept of conflict of interest. In fact, it would be impossible for any journal editor not to have a “conflict of conscience” according to the definition that Dr. Eissenberg and colleagues are asking us to accept. Everyone involved in tobacco control has some personal view on the relative safety of e-cigarettes. The idea that researchers should boycott the journal because the editor has expressed his personal views on the relative safety of e-cigarettes is ludicrous.

Interestingly, in making their accusation that Dr. West has some sort of unusual “conflict of conscience” that would make it inappropriate for the journal to consider papers on e-cigarettes, Eissenberg et al. only quoted a small portion of Dr. West’s comments in the newspaper article. I could just have easily accused Dr. West of having a strong personal bias against e-cigarettes by selectively quoting him from the newspaper article as stating:

“This is a danger. Regulators should monitor this.”

In fact, Dr. West’s views as expressed in the newspaper article appear to me to be balanced and evidence-based. His full comment to the paper explains the scientific reasoning behind his view, which I find quite reasonable:

“We have such a massive opportunity here. It would be a shame to let it slip away by being overly cautious. E-cigarettes are about as safe as you can get. We know about the health risks of nicotine from studies in Sweden into the use of “Snus”, a smokeless tobacco. Nicotine is not what kills you when you smoke tobacco. E-cigarettes are probably about as safe as drinking coffee. All they contain is water vapour, nicotine and propylene glycol [which is used to help vaporise the liquid nicotine].”

But more to the point, the entire concept of suggesting that researchers boycott a journal based on the scientific views of the journal editor is a dangerous one. It is basically setting up a system where the only journals that survive would be ones whose editors express opinions that are in line with the mainstream scientific opinion. In fact, the very idea that researchers should boycott journals based on the opinions of the journal editor is nonsensical. Should we boycott the journal Tobacco Control because the editor does not personally believe that e-cigarettes are orders of magnitude safer than real cigarettes? Once we start going down that path, we end up challenging the existence of scientific integrity in research reporting.

This is the reason why journals screen for financial conflicts of interest, rather than conduct a McCarthy-like witch hunt to determine whether a researcher may be biased because of opinions they have expressed. Believe me, we don’t want to go down that path.

There may be unusual situations in which an editor may have such a personal connection to an issue that it may be appropriate to recuse themselves from review and ask a deputy or assistant editor to handle the review, but that’s certainly not true in this case. Here, the review was apparently handed off to a different editor anyway, even though I don’t see any reason whatsoever why that would have been necessary.

What is perhaps most ironic about the letter to the editor by Eissenberg et al. is that although they accuse the editor and the journal of a serious conflict of interest, the letter itself fails to disclose an apparent financial conflict of interest of one of its authors. The letter fails to disclose any conflicts of interest among its authors (this link is to the PDF version of the letter which I checked to make sure a disclosure statement wasn’t just missing in the online version). Thus, one would assume that none of the authors has any connection to the tobacco industry, such as — for example — having received funding from an organization chaired by a tobacco industry executive.

But it appears that Dr. Shihadeh — the lead author of the letter to the editor — has failed to disclose that he has, in the past, received funding from an organization chaired by a tobacco industry executive. Dr. Shihadeh is the co-author of several papers that acknowledge funding from the International Development Research Centre, which — at the time — was chaired by Barbara McDougall, who was on the Board of Directors of the Imperial Tobacco Company.

In addition, Dr. Eissenberg — the senior author of the letter to the editor — also acknowledged having received funding from the same organization, which was at the time chaired by a tobacco company executive.

I find it ironic that the only real conflict of interest in this story is the fact that two of the authors of the letter to the editor have, in the past, received funding from an organization that was chaired by a tobacco industry executive. And that conflict of interest is not disclosed by the authors.

Now, to be very clear, I am not accusing Dr. Shihadeh or Dr. Eissenberg of voluntarily accepting tobacco industry-related funding. They stated that they were unaware, at the time of the funding, that the chair of the organization was a tobacco industry executive. So I’m not blaming them for accepting that funding. However, they were certainly aware in 2015 – when they wrote the letter to the editor – that they had been funded by an organization chaired by a tobacco industry executive. It seems to me that is a fact that should have been disclosed. That lack of disclosure, by the way, stands in contrast to Dr. West’s full disclosure of his industry-related funding from pharmaceutical companies and his clear statement that he has never been funded by the tobacco or e-cigarette industries.

The rest of the story is that in my view, Dr. Eissenberg is falsely accusing the journal Addiction of having violated scientific principles of peer review because of a personal bias on the part of the editor. Worse still, he has now called for a boycott of the journal based on these unsupported allegations.

It would truly be a shame if researchers followed this misguided recommendation.

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