A dubious homeopathy study made its way into a scientific journal. Will it be retracted?

Homeopaths did it again–they snuck a dubious study into a respectable journal. Well, sort of. Let's quickly look at the study, and then look at the journal that published it.

The paper has a very science-y sounding title, which likely helped it sneak under the radar: "Ultra-diluted Toxicodendron pubescens attenuates pro-inflammatory cytokines and ROS-mediated neuropathic pain in rats." It seems they were studying pain in rats, but what else is hiding inside this title?

The first warning here is the phrase "ultra-diluted." In the world of homeopathy, substances are diluted until there is literally nothing left, not a single molecule. Some of the dilutions in this paper were indeed extremely dilute, down to 10-30, which means that they were just water. So they can't possibly have any therapeutic effect, at least no more effect than plain water.

You might also be wondering what Toxicodendron pubescens is. That's poison oak! Here's what homeopaths claim about poison oak: that if you dilute it down sufficiently, it reduces itching and pain. This is one of the basic principals of homeopathy, that "like cures like"–that if you want to treat a symptom, using a substance that causes the same symptom, only dilute it way down. Feeling itchy? Rub some poison oak on that! I'm not kidding–here's a link to a product you can buy that really makes this claim.

Of course this is utter nonsense, as I and many others have written before. Homeopathy doesn't work for anything at all, as a massive Australian study concluded back in 2015.

Now let's look at where this dubious study appeared: in a journal called Scientific Reports. Scientific Reports is a mega-journal that publishes 25,000 papers per year, making it the largest journal in the world. What's also interesting is that it is published by the Nature publishing group, which also publishes the highly prestigious journal Nature and many other related, high-quality journals. (Full disclosure: I've published many papers in those journals.) PLoS ONE was the first mega-journal, and it was so successful (i.e., it made so much money for its publishers) that Nature decided to imitate it. They've managed to steal a lot of the "customers" from PLoS ONE because the Nature brand is, apparently, more appealing to many authors.

It's tempting to argue that everything in Scientific Reports is just low-quality stuff, so one more bad paper doesn't mean anything. But it's not so simple. Scientific Reports is trying to be a decent journal, one that has a very high acceptance rate (59%, according to their website) but that nonetheless publishes only valid science. Last year I was involved in a kerfuffle with them over a plagiarized paper, and after lots of pressure, we did get them to retract the paper. It wasn't easy, but the Editor in Chief corresponded with me at the time, and he really does seem to be trying to enforce some decent standards.

When you publish 25,000 papers a year, though, some garbage is going to slip through. To their credit, Scientific Reports has now issued a note of concern on this homeopathy paper, as reported by the alert team at Retraction Watch. Here's the note in its entirety:
"Editors’ Note: Readers are alerted that the conclusions of this paper are subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Appropriate editorial action will be taken once this matter is resolved."
The right thing to do would be to retract this paper, because its results are simply not valid. We'll see if that happens.

Meanwhile, when reading the paper, I noticed that no less than eight of its references are to a journal called Homeopathy, published by Elsevier, one of the biggest and most profitable academic publishers in the world. Unlike Scientific Reports, Homeopathy is not even trying to publish valid science; its entire existence is premised on a nonsensical set of beliefs.

The good folks over at Retraction Watch wrote about this journal two years ago, in an article called "Does a journal of homeopathy belong in science?" Spoiler alert: it doesn't. As Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus wrote then:
"the issue is that science publishers, even legitimate global corporations like Elsevier, will accept something patently unscientific if it might make them money."
So while Nature does deserve criticism for letting bad science slip into its mega-journal, Elsevier has a lot more explaining to do. At least Nature is trying.

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