August 4th, 2014
Review Panel Exonerates The BMJ in Statin Kerfuffle
An independent review panel has rejected a demand by a prominent researcher that The BMJ retract two controversial articles. The report largely exonerates the journal’s editors from any wrongdoing.
As previously reported, Rory Collins, a prominent researcher and head of the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration, had demanded that The BMJ retract two articles that were highly critical of statins. Although The BMJ issued a correction for both papers for inaccurately citing an earlier publication and therefore overstating the incidence of adverse effects of statins, this response did not satisfy Collins. He repeatedly demanded that the journal issue a full retraction of the articles, prompting The BMJ’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, to convene an outside panel of experts to review the problem.
The report of the independent statins review panel exonerates The BMJ from wrongdoing and said the controversial articles should not be retracted:
The panel were unanimous in their decision that the two papers do not meet any of the criteria for retraction. The error did not compromise the principal arguments being made in either of the papers. These arguments involve interpretations of available evidence and were deemed to be within the range of reasonable opinion among those who are debating the appropriate use of statins.”
In fact, the panel was critical of Collins for refusing to submit a published response to the articles:
The panel noted with concern that despite the Editor’s repeated requests that Rory Collins should put his criticisms in writing as a rapid response, a letter to the editor or as a stand-alone article, all his submissions were clearly marked ‘Not for Publication’. The panel considered this unlikely to promote open scientific dialogue in the tradition of the BMJ.”
The report did find some minor deficiencies in the editorial process at The BMJ and said that the delay from publication of the articles in October 2013 to the correction in May 2014 was too long. The panel said that the journal “should implement a significant event audit… to try and identify what would need to have been in place to ensure that the correction was made in a more timely fashion.”
They also stated that press releases should be used “cautiously” for opinion pieces about controversial topics.
The panel did not express an opinion about the risks and benefits of statins:
It is important to note that the panel has not been asked to pass judgment on the risks and benefits of statins per se, nor on the appropriate use of statin medication in low risk individuals. Instead the panel has been asked to decide whether there are sufficient grounds to require retraction of one or both of the articles from the scientific literature. The panel has been at pains not to take sides and not to support one view at the expense of another.”
Panel member Harlan Krumholz provided the following comment:
I had the privilege of serving with a remarkable set of experts who took the charge seriously and spent countless hours investigating the issue and deliberating over the recommendation. The panel did not weigh in on the issue of the risk of statins, but judged the merits of the call for retraction. In the end there was little doubt that the opinion pieces in The BMJ did not meet criteria for retraction and the correction that had been made was sufficient.”