Following last week’s post, Club 329: Part 1, Ben Goldacre went into orbit claiming his views on medicalization and Study 329 had been misrepresented. He offered a SoundCloud as evidence. The link can be found in the comments after the last post. Seems to me Leonie got the content of the Q & A right.
In the course of listening to the BG SoundCloud though something else came into view. Leonie began questioning him about the links between one of the BMJ editors and the law firm Ropes and Gray who had represented GSK in the Department of Justice case that led to a $3 Billion fine for GSK. This didn’t seem to worry Ben. He’s not worried about Conflict of Interest – nor am I. His view on Fraud is unclear.
There was something else in the recording that caught my interest. BG didn’t figure the question of BMJ taking over a year to publish Study 329 was an issue. You couldn’t possibly make out that BMJ are the bad guys in the business of suppressing good science, he said. If anything they have a reputation for being too sanctimoniously obsessive about research integrity.
As BG says people react differently to things. If you and he were both facing a course of treatment, some piece of trial data about a drug might speak to him and not you and vice-versa. Maybe the Study 329 story doesn’t speak to him and others of you out there – doesn’t give you a feel for GSK or BMJ.
Perhaps a completely different story will work for those of you to whom Restoring Study 329 doesn’t speak.
A curious development
Six months into a tortured year long review process for Restoring Study 329, something odd happened. On February 9 2015, I was approached by the BMJ:
I’ve long been interested in the controversy over the role of serotonin in mental illness and wonder if you would like to write an editorial for us on: “What is the evidence that serotonin plays a role in depression?”
More than happy to think about doing this for you. But I probably need to make something of a pre-conflict of interest conflict of interest statement, which you will need to consider.
The idea of serotonin in depression is inextricably linked to the marketing of the SSRIs. There is vanishingly little evidence that serotonin is involved in depression – but I can probably put more evidence on the table for its role than almost anyone can.
The idea of a role for serotonin in depression has been an extraordinary marketing trope – one that is critical to perceptions when it comes to the way the role of SSRIs in suicidality and birth defects is viewed. Because of this latter aspect and my role in some of these debates many people viewing an editorial by me would probably have a blood boiling moment. That’s just viewing the existence of an editorial – might not be too bad if they read it.
BMJ decided to run with it, but then seemed to have a crisis. They got back to me with an extensive conflict of interest declaration and there was a considerable delay after I got this back to them before anything else happened. Given all the fuss BMJ were making about Conflicts of Interest on Restoring Study 329, it was difficult not to think there was some link.
Finally they ran with the editorial but had difficulties with the title. So, So Long and Thanks for all the Serotonin became Serotonin and Depression. The Marketing of a Myth. It did well in terms of impact factor despite the fact that Sense about Science, with which Ben Goldacre is closely linked and which kicked off AllTrials with him, mobilized to get dissing comments about it from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and others.
Sense about Science spends a good deal of time mobilizing responses to material that might seem not supportive of corporate interests – see the Sense about Science series of posts to which BG also took exception.
Curiouser and curiouser
But there is a more interesting story behind this one that I only know about by accident.
A short while before the BMJ approached me, I had been sent an article – on the Myth and Marketing of Serotonin. It was a very good read. At least as good as mine if not better. One of the authors asked what I thought about the possibility of BMJ being interested. I said I thought it was unlikely.
Despite my advice, the authors went ahead and submitted anyway – on February 7 2015. They got a quick reply.
We are in the process of commissioning an editorial for The BMJ, looking specifically at the role of serotonin in depression, and so you will be able to send in a rapid response to that directly.
When dealing with BMJ you can get the feeling they (the editors) are using authors to run their own agenda. You might get in touch with a draft article on Access to Clinical Trial Data and they get back saying “sorry we’ve just had something else from someone else on this topic”. The something else when it appears a good deal later turns out to be a neutered version of what needs to be said.
Many people figure journals shouldn’t have an agenda. In fact the first medical journal, the Lancet, began with an agenda – against food adulteration. The later appearing BMJ ran its own campaign against nostrums – around 1900. These campaigns put these journals at considerable risk of reprisals. BMJ sees itself under its current editor as on a mission. It’s more recent campaigns, far from putting the journal at risk, have been for Evidence Based Medicine and Against Overdiagnosis, along with AllTrials to which pharma has signed up.
Whatever the BMJ mission its not a mission to tackle adverse events – the modern equivalent of adulteration or nostrums. It was close to paralyzed in the case of Study 329 by having to conceded a drug might have a side effect.
The educational articles BMJ runs on most drugs contain little or no mention of adverse events. While it published Restoring Study 329 after a gun was put to its head, its educational articles on antidepressants play down any risk of suicide, are comfortable with giving antidepressants to children, never mention withdrawal, and deny links to birth defects.
But here’s the rub. The article that was better written than mine was written by Leonie Fennel and Maria Bradshaw – neither of whom have healthcare or neuroscience backgrounds. Both write like angels. Leonie was a hairdresser before a family tragedy mobilized her to find out more about the drugs that led to the death of her son and others. The latest version can be accessed on ResearchGate and an earlier version is attached here.
You’d have to think BMJ couldn’t cope with the idea of a hairdresser joining the club. Only credentialed nerds need apply.
Leonie’s input along with that of people like Anne Marie Kelly who have done so much to establish the role of SSRIs in promoting alcoholism proves again and again – and is the inspiration behind RxISK.org – that motivation counts for more than expertise.
When my article came out, Sense about Sense mobilized against it – having been sent a copy by BMJ, with whom they, BG and GSK are part of an AllTrials coalition.
Parts 3 and 4 to come.