Magic trick gone wrong: PLOS One retracted an article on homeopathy

Magic trick gone wrong: PLOS One retracted an article on homeopathy

In what way pseudoscience is disguising itself as a science and what to do about it.

Researchers, scientists, and popular exponents of science are fighting with proponents and manufacturers of homeopathy. This is a protracted war. However, it is still a challenging task to overcome the blind faith of people in some miracle cure from anything in the whole world, even though none of serious studies has proved to be effective.

Despite the ample scientific evidence that some substance diluted by a factor of 100 cures nothing, there are still great many admirers of pseudoscientific approach “to be treated from all the diseases”. Nevertheless, the science is gradually retaking its positions in this prolonged war.

A small victory

Thus, in early May the respected international scientific journal PLOS One has retracted the paper written by a team of Russian scientists. The article, published as far back as in 2014, was describing the operating principles of so-called “release-active” medicines.

“This long pseudoscientific title is an example of “eyewash”, – Olga Maslova, PhD in Biological Sciences, cell biologist, and popularizer of science, said. – There is certain distrust in the word “homeopathy”. For this very reason, authors of article retracted from PLOS One went the other way – they tried to avoid “folksy expression”, having eluded possible negative reactions, managed to have their paper considered and even published in the journal.”

Magic trick gone wrong: PLOS One retracted an article on homeopathy

Olga Maslova, PhD in Biological Sciences, cell biologist, and popularizer of science

Photo: Vitaliy Melnyk

The Editorial Board of PLOS One questioned the scientific foundation for the article of Russian scientists, and scented the conflict of interest never reported the authors of the publication.

There is certain distrust in the word “homeopathy”. For this very reason, authors of article retracted from PLOS One went the other way

The Editorial Board of the journal has initiated its own investigation after Alexander Panchin, famous Russian popularizer of science, PhD in Biological Sciences, and member of Committee Against Pseudoscience and Falsification of Scientific Research under the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences, jointly with his colleague, Dueva Evgenia, medical chemist, had sent to PLOS One a number of letters criticizing the publication.

“In response to viral infections, the human body produces special proteins – interferons, inclusive of interferon gamma, – Alexander Panchin said to Innovation House. – The authors of the article took antibodies to interferon gamma and then diluted them many-fold in homeopathic way. There were no antibodies in the final solution.

Magic trick gone wrong: PLOS One retracted an article on homeopathy

Alexander Panchin, popularizer of science, PhD in Biological Sciences, and member of Committee Against Pseudoscience and Falsification of Scientific Research under the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences

According to Mr. Panchin, authors of now-infamous article believe that sort of “release-active forms” of antibodies or briefly “RA-forms” are formed when diluting the antibodies. Moreover, they say that these RA-forms may have an effect on the intensity of some chemical reaction.

“Basically, this conflicts with the known laws of physics and chemistry, – Mr. Panchin said. – In speaking of RA-forms, this is nothing more than the pipe dream of the authors.”

Design of the study was yet another reason for the retraction of the article. The official commentary of PLOS One suggests that insufficient methodological reporting was obfuscating the assessment of the study design.

Following consultations with outside expert, Editorial Board concluded that the article of Russian scientists describes the many-fold dilution of the reagent – to such an extent that usable volumes had not a single biochemically active molecule. Even though the publication does not contain a term “homeopathy”, in sober fact, all this is the description of “operating” principle of homeopathic remedies.

Magic trick gone wrong: PLOS One retracted an article on homeopathy

Above all, one of the authors of the retracted paper, Oleg Epshtein, correspondent member at the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the owner of Materia Medica Holding pharmaceutical company that manufactures medicines against viral and other infections, based on “release-active” forms of antibodies. This was also chosen not to be disclosed to Editorial Board of PLOS One by Mr. Epshtein and his co-authors.

Stay alert

On the one hand, retraction of pseudoscientific article from reputable and trustworthy journal is good news. But on the other hand, this is a worrisome sign.

“Sure thing, so cool that we have such a result – also owing to reaction of other researchers and popular exponents, – Olga Maslova said. – However, the article was being published in rather good journal for four consecutive years. This is yet another trigger: not all that have been published in scientific periodical shall a priori be treated as error-free. Secondly, it is rather difficult to assess the success of some research, directly or indirectly sponsored by someone interested in a certain result.”

One shall not take everything printed in scientific journals at face value

Alexander Panchin is sharing these views.

“It is well known that reviewers might not always find even the grave mistakes made in researches and studies. One shall not take everything printed in scientific journals at face value,” – researcher said.

According to him, since authors of the retracted article have used the term “release-active forms” instead of long-discredited term “homeopathy”, reviewers of the journal, who, on top of all, knew nothing about Materia Medica Holding company, could have been treated the paper less critically. They failed to dig deep and figure out what “release-activity” stands for.

Olga Maslova reported that from year to year the information concerning how an ordinary person, who has no scientific degree and sufficient knowledge, may distinguish really decent study from pseudoscientific one, is becoming more accessible. However, pseudoscience-friendly researchers do not lag behind the progress and adapt themselves to these changes – in particular, they use poorly known pseudoscientific terminology instead of discredited old terminology.

However, there are some minimal precautionary measures that may be taken not to accept the credibility of the results of “inadequate” studies with sensational conclusions.

Thus, Alexander Panchin advices to keep watching what papers are citing the paper you are interested in – Google Scholar is offering this possibility free of charge.

“Moreover, it is worth checking out whether the original source is the article in a scientific journal, – biologist said. Scientific journals are being indexed by Scopus and Web of science databases. If so, then one shall check out whether there was any criticism of this article and whether if was retracted. If one still has some doubts – this article shall be shown to independent expert, who has a command of English.”



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