We’ve all heard at some point that a certain product, therapy or theory is supported by science. And those magical words make us believe whatever they go with. Science is the method used to verify facts and we should surely trust it without questioning the scientific method, right? The fact that most of the people don’t have a scientific background or, for a matter of fact, understand the scientific method doesn’t make things easier. The objective of this article is to give some insight how the world of science works and how to better filter the information in order to reach the most well verified and reviewed facts.
How are scientific studies carried out?
Studies are conducted in order to prove or refute a hypothesis suggested by a certain person (author).
There are different types of studies with different levels of validity depending on the amount of subjects used, budget and methodology. Generally speaking, a quality study in the field of medicine, for example, should count with at least 200 subjects, divided into two groups. One of the groups receiving whichever treatment is being researched and the other receiving a placebo. Neither the patients not the scientists should know who is in which group, so to guarantee the impartiality of the assessment. Once the study is concluded, several variables of interest are measured and a comparison between groups is done using statistical methods. If results are significantly better than the placebo group and secondary effects are acceptable, then the treatment will be included into common medical practice. Some time later, once several studies have been conducted on the same treatment, someone will probably decide to carry out a systematic review, which is nothing more than a global analysis of all the results that have been obtained on a certain subject up to that date. Most of the studies are funded with public money from scholarships or government financing and just a few (especially those involving medicines) are funded by private companies.
In the world of science, which is actually quite an accurate reflect of society, those who work the hardest are often who get the least…
Types of studies, from most to least evidence:
|Controlled unrandomized study|
So, summarizing: imagine you’re a scientist and you’d like to conduct a study in order to prove something that interests you. Firstly you search for some funding (either public or private), and once you have the money you go ahead and carry out your study and get some results: and here is where the science mafia shows for the first time.
The next step is to publish the findings so other people have access to the new information. If the study has been financed by a private company, it isn’t rare for the company to stop the paper from being published if the results aren’t favorable to the product it sells or the theory it supports. It is through this mechanism, for instance, that Coca-Cola pays studies to prove that their product is not harmful (and if the results show otherwise they simply won’t be published). This is why sometimes there are only positive studies about the impact of certain things, which makes it difficult to judge weather something is really useful or not. Most of the studies conducted on drugs are actually funded by the pharmaceutical companies themselves, who end up having control over the results. If a certain medication doesn’t prove useful or causes serious secondary effects nobody will ever know, until it is removed from the market due to its surprising toxicity, maybe years later.
Getting the information out there:
Within the scientific world there has been a sort of “dogma” for more than 50 years which obliges any worthy study to be published in a specialized journal following a both methodic and debatable method. It’s hard to believe that in this 21st century marked by the rise of social media there still isn’t a free, liberal and critical way to share science.
When we think of science-related publishers, the great “guru” Elsevier immediately comes to mind. The publication of scientific papers is nowadays a very successful business, generating 900M € of benefits. Up there with giant corporates such as Google, Amazon or Apple! If we analyze the expenses that it all involves, however, it’s certainly difficult to grasp where such big amounts of money come from.
Any journal or publisher must deal with several payments: writers, editors, distribution, etc. Very rarely is a 15% profit margin ever surpassed. How publishing scientific materials is such a sweet deal is thanks to a few little differences in the standard process: basically, publishers avoiding all costs.
- Scientists conduct studies and write up articles with public or private money. Then they’re happy to cede their work to the publishers for them to publish it in a prestigious journal (without perceiving any payment, of course). This is how the publisher avoids having to pay both the research and the researchers.
- Instead of hiring proofreaders and editors, it’s other scientists who voluntarily review their colleagues’ work in what are known as peer-reviews. Once again, the publisher pays no editing costs.
- The publisher then sells the access to the journal to different organizations such as libraries, universities, etc… who are typically the ones involved in creating it in the first place! Thus the Government has a double expense: it funds the research in the first place to then pay to access its results. Isn’t such a corrupt little world ironic?
Much has changed in the kingdom of science since it all first started. Now it is a highly profitable business for some and a mere vocation for others.
Imagine if a big newspaper didn’t pay its writers or editors! Now you can better understand the huge profits of Elsevier. It’s just strange to picture this triple payment system, with Government often funding the research programs, paying scientists and editors and then having to pay one more time in order to gain access to the published papers. For us at Stop Autoimmunity it’s incomprehensible that such a feudal system can still be running.
A well known and very recognized scientist in the US (who prefers to remain anonymous) admits that the system has them (scientists) rather “enslaved” and that those who do research do it because it’s something they enjoy. However, they almost always have to combine research with university teaching and conferences in order to make a decent living. It’s rather sad to think that some of the people who are in charge of improving our quality of life may have trouble to make ends meet, while the big publishers are making money without doing anything at all.
Another dark matter about publishers is the pressure they put on scientists: just as any journal or magazine, what they are looking for are articles with the desired results and that make a good impression on the readers. That’s why oftentimes articles that prove the initial hypothesis wrong don’t make it through the publication process. In fact, it is estimated that more than half of the studies conducted in the US are never published. This is an important drawback as far as scientific advances go, as it might mean that several research teams might work on the same thing over the years due to no results being available (even though they might have been produced, but not published). Then there’s the own editorial’s demands. Just as it happens with any general interest newsletter or magazine with certain views (social, political, etc.), anything going against those views will surely not be published. A good example can be seen in the field of environmental science, where there have been cases of climate change denying publishers that wouldn’t publish articles which linked climate change and human activities. On the other hand we have the conflicts of interest, which are typically stated towards the end of the paper. Never completely trust articles with conflicts of interest: how does it sound that a scientist whose salary is payed by Bayer says aspirin has no side effects?
All medicines must be approved by the scientific method before being commercialized. Of course, this isn’t necessarily always the case…
Elsevier is in an excellent position: no expenses and much profit from publicly funded work. The monopoly they exercise enables them to completely control the prices of the papers, which have nearly doubled over the past 20 years. How is it possible that a copy of the National Geographic magazine costs $5, and that a three page paper costs $60? It’s an unsustainable situation which must be ended through an attitude change in scientists, who in the end are the ones who produce the work.
Scientific studies have become the only way to express results in a valid way. The only way to gain visibility nowadays is to get your work published in prestigious journals, which are in turn controlled by the few major publishers. Thus, researchers have to fall into line and literally give away their work, which will later be sold by others. Some universities (especially in Europe), which are already limited by a small budget have to pay Elsevier up to 2M per year in order to gain access to the article database. The prices are completely prohibitive, especially for someone not linked to an institution, and that’s why few can access their colleagues’ work for free.
The monopoly is such that just three companies (Elsevier, Springer and Wiley) handle more than half of the articles out there, and of course manipulate the prices as they choose. At Stop Autoimmunity we firmly believe that access to science should be cost-free, for the sake of both researchers and patients (or other interested people). Science publishers don’t contribute much and can actually hinder progress. The movement against them started a few years ago, with the rise of websites such as ResearchGate (www.researchgate.net) through which scientific work is shared for free without using any “publication”. Another more drastic and currently ilegal approach (though understandable given the current situation) is that taken by Kazakh researcher Alexandra Elbakyan, who, fed up by the publisher mediation hacked their webs and enabled free access to countless pieces on her web Sci-Hub. Such gesture, which later cost her a millionaire lawsuit, granted thousands of scientists the possibility to access lots of articles for free. As long as the system remains as it is, at Stop Autoimmunity we’ll support such attitude, because we think it’s immoral, shameful and wrong to have to pay $50 or more for some scientific paper which might contribute to improve quality of live in the coming years.
How to distinguish a decent study
Firstly have a look at the type of article. Really, only randomized and double-blind studies should be considered very reliable. On the other hand, one should take into account the number of people who took part in the study: the more the better. Lastly, one should look out for conflicts of interest between authors. Other elements such as the statistical work and methodology are also good quality indicators, though their judgment is often too difficult for people who are unfamiliar with scientific procedures.
In summary, the scientific world is a complex one, with researchers doing a lot of hard work and a few mafia-ish companies that hugely benefit from it through a relentless system. Only by taking the matter into our own hands can we possibly end this situation and gain free access to (very often publicly-funded) science which could certainly help us in many aspects of life. At Stop Autoimmunity we declare war against these great publishers.
If you’re interested in this subject, we recommend this revealing book: