26 October 2015

Dubious journals from major scientific publishers: Homeopathy

Consumer Reports recently looked into homeopathic remedies. It was pretty timid repudiation, but did contain this critical line:

That makes no scientific sense, our experts say.

In this regard, Consumer Reports seems to be ahead of the giant science publisher Elsevier. Elsevier publishes an entire journal titled Homeopathy.

I was reminded of Homeopathy when Jane Hu commented that Elsevier’s journal Medical Hypotheses is “The X-Files division of Elsevier.”

Medical Hypotheses was intended to be a journal that would let people put out ideas that would be hard to publish in more conservative journals. This mostly meant ditching peer review, and a lot of crazy stuff got into its pages. I have never heard anyone praise a paper from Medical Hypotheses as demonstrably advancing a field. But I am at least sympathetic to the idea that maybe some speculative ideas need a home.

But if Medical Hypotheses is Elsevier’s X-Files, Homeopathy is its Area 51.

I hate to be blunt, and expect someone call me names, but... Homeopathy is crazy. Homeopathy is pseudoscience. It has no theoretical mechanism for action. It has failed test after test after test. It does not work.

Not only is this journal published by Elsevier, it is indexed in the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge and has an Impact Factor.

The Web of Knowledge is vetted, and claims:

Our rigorous selection process for Web of Science guarantees that the best, most relevant journals contribute to all of our data and evaluation solutions.

When a closely inspected scientific database can’t weed out the most obvious junk science, you have to wonder how serious they are about identifying “best, more relevant journals”.

Perhaps the most disturbing this is that it gets cited by other journals. They are mostly “alternative medicine” types of journals, but certainly not all.

As I have written before, I do not consider for profit scientific publishing an inherently evil idea. Burying traditional publishers is not a goal for me.

But whenever anyone talks about the importance of gatekeepers and reputation and the value of traditional publishers... ask if a major scientific publisher should have a journal like Homeopathy on its roster. Any publisher that claims to value scientific rigor should not only be embarrassed by a journal like this, they should shut it down.

Scientific publishers should be judged not only on their highest quality products, but by what crap they keep around and can’t be bothered to get rid of.

Additional, 27 October 2015: This journal is, of course, yesterday’s news. Librarian Jeffrey Beall (he of the dodgy publishers list) tweeted about this journal earlier this year. It elicited this disappointing response from Elsevier representative Tom Reller:

So for every topic that someone thinks is pseudoscience on wikipedia, STM pubs aren’t allowed to publish studies on it? What?

Sure, cast doubt on Wikipedia rather than addressing the question. Say it’s just “someone” on Wikipedia, as though it’s the work of a lone troublemaker instead of a page with (as of this count) 2,299 different users. Ignore that the Wikipedia article has 297 references, many of which go to peer reviewed journal articles. Ignore that homeopathy does not have credibility in the scientific community.

If I had time, I would love to create list of all the articles in Elsevier journals that have titles like, “Homeopathy cannot even be used to replace placebo”. Or maybe this article in the Elsevier journal The Lancet, which concludes in the abstract, “This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homeopathy are placebo effects.”

I’m not arguing that academic publishers should outlaw papers on a topic. The point is that having a journal dedicated to bunk looks bad, and provides an easy outlet for bunk.

Indeed, Homeopathy may be one of the best arguments for keeping research articles bundled in journals: it provides a quick signpost that reads, “You can ignore this.”

Hat tip to Bj√∂rn Brembs for pointing out this journal to me. Further hat tip to Richard Poynder for pointing me to Reller’s response.

Additional, 13 June 2018: The journal Homeopathy is also indexed in PubMed.

This story notes that the journal had been delisted from Web of Science journal rankings in 2016. Since then, however, Web of Science has changed ownership, and the journal is still indexed in the service.

There is a tiny side note saying, “Suppressed in 2015,” with no explanation of what that means. It looks like it got back on the list the next year.

Update, 7 August 2019: The journal Homeopathy is no longer published by Elsevier! But if you think that means it is out of business, think again. It’s changed hands and is now published by Thieme. Thieme is a long established academic publisher (over 125 years), so I’m just as shocked to see them pick up this journal as I was surprised when I saw it in Elsevier’s stable.

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