Torching the science

January 2014

“In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell, author of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'

The frantic damage-limitation exercise launched in response to the publication of Professor Séralini's evidence of long-term harm from a GM maize and its associated herbicide [1] has stepped up an interesting notch. 

After spending over a year listening to the sounds of pro-biotech panic, the editors of Food and  Chemical Toxicology (FCT) journal have decided to retract the paper.  An unnamed FCT panel has recommended that, because “no definitive conclusion” could be reached from the data on mortality or tumour incidence due to the number of animals in each group and the strain of rat used, the science should be written out of scientific history. 

Professor  Séralini followed the OECD chronic toxicity protocol as was entirely appropriate for his study.  This requires that any observed “lesions” (including tumours) are recorded.  In line with the protocol,  Séralini simply reported his observations without statistical analysis and without drawing definite conclusions. 

The rats were a standard laboratory strain commonly used in this type of study, and were the same as those used by Monsanto in its own, short-term, feeding study.  Similarly, the number of animals per group conformed to the protocol. 

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) sets out clear guidelines for retraction in scientific publishing.  These are:
  • misconduct (data fabrication) or honest error
  • plagiarism or redundant publication
  • unethical research
Clearly, none of these apply in any way whatsoever to Séralini's paper, and “inconclusiveness” of the data is not on the list. 

As GM Watch points out
“Numerous published scientific papers contain inconclusive findings, which are often mixed in with findings that can be presented with more certainty.  It is for future researchers to build on the findings and refine scientific undersqanding of any uncertainties”. 

GM-free Scotland has previously reported on the 'life or death' power of journal editors, and how industry is exploiting this for its own, commercial, ends [2].   Séralini was well aware of this and kept his long-term experiment quiet until the day of publication, knowing that otherwise it would never see the light of day. 

Cardiologist, Peter Wilmshurst, who has made a special study of misconduct in his own field of medical research (see box) points out the significant financial incentives for journal editors to publish industry-friendly papers as these will attract industry advertising and reprints.  Add to this, the fear of lawsuits brought by industry keeps a quiet stranglehold on the publication of negative evidence about its products. 

Interestingly, Wilmshurst notes that in his experience “It is a long, hard, and thankless task to get concerns about research published”.  This does not, it seems, apply to GM-unfriendly findings. 

Wilmshurst ends, chillingly, that better and more honest scrutiny of medical papers would be costly for the journals, “but it would be cheaper than the cost to society of allowing patients to suffer from ineffective or dangerous treatments and of diverting other researchers up blind alleys”.  A novel food, inadequately tested for safety will cause more widespread suffering than any medical treatment, and will perpetuate that harm through the further mis-guided science it promotes.

Peter Wilmshurst
Cardiologist, Peter Wilmshurst, describes how early in his career

“I was threatened with litigation if I revealed that a new drug for heart failure was ineffective and caused life-threatening side-effects.” 

After three major journals had refused to publish the details of the study because of fear they might be sued for libel by the company, Wilmshurst exposed it to the newspapers.
When publishing his own research (which had implications for the health and survival of patients) no editor of a medical journal has ever asked for evidence for any claim made.  When writing about research misconduct, the journal's editors require that every statement can be confirmed by supporting documents to the satisfaction of the journals' lawyers to avoid the risk of a libel claim.  Clearly, for the editors of many medical journals, the finances of the journal are more important than the lives of patients who might be harmed by publication of research that cannot be substantiated.


FCT's editorial board also ended their letter to  Séralini regarding their decision to retract his paper on a chilling note.  Apparently the board intend to “continue to use this case as a reminder to be as diligent as possible in the peer review process”.  Does this mean their original chosen(unnamed) peer reviewers who recognised the study had merit despite its limitations, will be replaced by more carefully selected (unnamed) reviewers to ensure GM-unfriendly evidence is suppressed? 

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is arriving four decades late in the world of science publishing.  FCT editors are happy, it seems, to re-write the COPE guidelines, rewrite OECD protocols, rewrite the established peer-review process, and rewrite history.  It is, indeed, a “time of universal deceit”. 

This must be an unfortunate precedent for a science journal to set, and is unlikely to be the end of the matter. 
Background reading
[1]  GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012
[2]  EDITED SCIENCE - June 2013 

Letter to Professor Séralini from Food and Chemical Toxicology, 19.11.13

Journal retraction of Séralini study is illicit, unscientific, and unethical, Statement by GM Watch, 28.11.13

Peter Wilmshurst, Obstacles to honesty in science: the case of medical research, Scientists for Global Responsibility Newsletter, Autumn 2013, Issue 42

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