Friday, March 20, 2015

Frontiers does it again: how bad practices in science publishing can mislead the public

The publishers of "Frontiers" provide readers with a remarkable pitch for their activities that includes the lavish use of terms such as "grassroots", "community oriented" "empowering researchers," and the like. Unfortunately, reality is far from these fantasies. "Frontiers" is not a grassroots initiative, but a profit oriented, commercial publishing house, and scientists have no control on what they decide to publish or not to publish.

I described in a previous post how the science publisher "Frontiers" took down a perfectly legitimate paper in climate science on the basis of unscientific criticism they received - a story that led me to resign from the position of chief scientific editor I had with them. Now, they did it again, although in reverse: they refused to take down an unscientific paper about AIDS on the basis of perfectly legitimate scientific criticism they received about it. What they did was, instead, to demote it to an "opinion" paper. That only made the problem worse.

Let me state it clearly: the business of a science publisher is to publish peer reviewed scientific papers. Opinion pieces can find space in scientific journals only when dealing with issues that can't be solved with the standard scientific method; say, about science policy. But it is totally wrong for a science publisher to publish bad scientific papers under the label of "opinion pieces." For that, we have plenty of tabloids that can do the job. 

What Frontiers did is not just a minor mishap: publishing bad science about serious issues such as AIDS is dangerous as the treatment of AIDS is an issue of life and death for many people. Unfortunately, however, the diffusion of "open access" journals managed by scientifically incompetent editors is leading to a proliferation of bad science. And this bad science appears, at first sight, as legitimate, "peer reviewed" articles that can badly mislead the public.

This is a problem deeply ingrained with scientists having delegated the dissemination of their result to commercial publishers. In principle, there is nothing wrong with publishing as a commercial enterprise but it is turning out that scientists have no real control on what these publishers (even supposedly "serious" ones) publish or do not publish. The case of Frontiers shows this point very clearly. So, the only possibility we have - as scientists -  to contrast this trend is to avoid submitting our work to publishers who clearly show little or no understanding of the basic elements of what science publishing should be.

In the following, you can find the responses of a group of Italian scientists to the paper on AIDS that Frontiers published.  


Texts kindly provided by "Dora"

Last September, Frontiers in Public Health published an AIDS denialist paper by Patricia Goodson, a psychologist who teaches Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University. Following the immediate reaction of the scientific community, the publisher Frontiers launched an investigation to look into the peer review process and to understand how the paper came to be published. 

During this investigation Frontiers “has sought expert input from the Specialty Chief Editors of the HIV and AIDS section of Frontiers in Public Health and Frontiers in Immunology”, which led to a conclusion that ended up turning what could be a simple, however serious, oversight of peer reviewers and chief editors into a debacle of the journal: Dr Goodson’s article has been re-classified as an “opinion” piece, “which represents the viewpoint of an individual”.

So the paper continues to be indexed on PubMed and can easily be used by the AIDS denialist movement for its propaganda in social networks and among lay people with HIV or who are at risk. Used in this way, the paper's re-designation as an "opinion" article rather than a "research" one is purely academic.

Johns Hopkins biologist Kenneth Witwer has called on scientists to boycott the publisher in response.

With a group of friends at the Italian HIVforum and with the support of four Italian scientists, I’ve sent a letter of complaint to Frontiers’ editors. The Frontiers Editorial Office Manager replied acknowledging receipt and promising a more comprehensive response “in a few days”. It's now been two weeks and there’s no trace of that “more comprehensive response”.

This is our complaint letter to Frontiers.

Dora – On behalf of the HIVforum Group (

March 1st, 2015
Frontiers in Public Health  
EPFL Innovation Park, Building I
CH – 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland
HIV/AIDS Chief Editors

Nina Bhardwaj,
New York University School of Medicine Langone Medical Center, New York, USA

John B.F. de Wit,
The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Frank Miedema,
University Medical Centre Utrecht, Utrecht, Netherlands

CC to

Kamila Makram, CEO of Frontiers

Editorial Office of Frontiers

As PLWHAs, scientists, clinicians and activists we are dismayed at the decision of Frontiers in Public Health to publish an article whose sole purpose is to promote HIV/AIDS denialism: Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent. (1)
The individuals who developed this piece are associated with a well-known internet based group (2) whose ideological purpose is to convince people with HIV/AIDS, and those who are at risk, that the virus does not exist or is harmless, that their diagnosis is a fraud, that HIV/AIDS is not sexually transmissible, and that competent treatment of the disease including the prevention of mother to child transmission is a cruel hoax perpetrated by greedy and foolish doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, governments, and gay activists.
It is difficult to understand how in 2015 a professional journal focused on public health could willingly lend support such a perverse project.

As a work of supposed scholarship, the paper is of manifestly poor quality. Likewise, its call to public health practitioners to take seriously such claims and to engage with them in informed debate is disingenuous: such “debates” have been carried on ad nauseam for decades, and serve only as a tactic to generate sound and fury in order to try to convince the denialists’ target audience that there is genuine uncertainty in the scientific and medical communities about whether HIV exists or causes any human disease. (3) Attempting to engage denialists is pointless: they have demonstrated conclusively over the past 30 years that they are impervious to evidence based counterargument, and will simply repeat the same claims over and over despite repeated refutation and painstaking explanation. Invariably such “debates” degenerate into personal attacks, and on a number of occasions to lawsuits.

Clearly, no one familiar with the basic science could take any of this paper’s contentions seriously, but its purpose is not to convince competent scientists or clinicians. Its purpose is to try to lend a veneer of credibility to their argument, when they target their main audience in social media. (4)

Dr. Goodson’s opening argument that “according to established immunology principles” the detection of antibodies necessarily demonstrates a past resolved infection and not a present one will be recognized as nonsense by anyone with basic science literacy, but is calculated to provide false reassurance to people with HIV who are struggling with their diagnosis.

She concludes her argument by blithely dismissing at a stroke the vast epidemiological literature demonstrating the causal relationship between HIV infection and AIDS with the statement that “epidemiological data do not provide evidence for causation”. It beggars belief that someone who teaches public health in a US institution could so profoundly misstate the fundamentals of her field, or that such a statement could pass unremarked on in a public health journal.

In between, she recites a familiar litany of tired falsehoods, misrepresentations and misapprehensions designed to mislead her intended audience into ignoring and dismissing measures to prevent, diagnose and treat a serious infectious disease. Dr. Goodson asserts, for example, that an HIV-1 Western Blot with bands at gp41, p32, and p24 is read as “negative” in Africa and Australia, which is patently false. Citing no less an authority than Dr. Henry Bauer himself she claims that HIV-1 p24 and gp41 are “found in blood platelets of healthy individuals.” which is again untrue. She states that “a retrovirus is nothing more than RNA with an outer protein shell” which “enables it to bind to cells of the type it infects”, ignoring the lipid bilayer envelope and other key components of lentiviruses.

She states incorrectly, that antiretroviral drugs “destroy the immune systems’ healthy T-cells”, and “cause a collapse identical to AIDS”, and that the apparent “miraculous recovery” observed by patients with AIDS using them is nothing more than a temporary illusion created by their broad spectrum antimicrobial effects.

There is nothing in Dr Goodson’s paper that warrants informed debate, nor any insight that could possibly contribute positively to public health.

We cannot understand how such obvious untruths and misrepresentations were able to pass through the filter first of the peer review and later of an investigation which has “sought expert input from the Specialty Chief Editors of the HIV and AIDS section of Frontiers in Public Health and Frontiers in Immunology”. (5)

Open access publishing is not merely a discourse among scholars but its very accessibility intersects with that of lay social media where it can be open to abuse by interests that seek to borrow the reputation of peer reviewed journals to further agendas inimical to public interest: this creates an enhanced obligation on publishers to be mindful of potential audiences and to avoid causing harm to readers who might lack the background knowledge and skills to evaluate contentious and clearly counterfactual claims, especially where such deliberate misinformation might lead individuals to make poor health decisions.

While it may have been the intention of the publisher that such claims might be conclusively dealt with by open debate on their pages, in reality this has not been possible in the case of HIV/AIDS denialism for many years, if ever. Such "debates" are futile because denialists by their nature are not amenable to reason or evidence, and in reality there is no dispute among informed scientists and clinicians about whether HIV exists and causes disease. (6)
Frontiers' publisher has possibly misinterpreted the lack of public engagement with Dr Goodson's absurd paper as approval of, or at least indifference to, its publication. In fact many of us have trusted the good sense of Frontiers' editors to take appropriate action for such a bizarre submission with obvious adverse implications for public health, and did not wish to add unnecessarily to the publisher’s further humiliation by contentious public criticism in the comments.

Unfortunately our trust in the judgment of Frontiers' senior editors appears to have been misplaced. The decision to demote the paper to “Opinion Article” will make no difference to the intended lay audience who will see only that Goodson’s claims are published in a peer reviewed journal of some repute, and are therefore credible.

The original publication of the paper was an embarrassing error which has highlighted to readers and potential contributors a significant deficit in the journal’s editorial oversight. In its Statement of Concern, the publisher has promised to make public the outcome of its investigation into how this paper came to appear in its journal. (7) To date this has not occurred.

The decision by Frontiers’ senior editors to support continued publication despite being made aware of the likely public health consequences of such a decision is incomprehensible, and appears to demonstrate indifference to, or a lack of understanding of, the journal’s responsibilities to its readers, contributors and to the wider community.

Dora – On behalf of the HIVforum Group (

Guido Poli, AIDS Immunopathogenesis Unit, San Raffaele Scientific Institute and Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milano, Italy (
Guido Silvestri, Emory University School of Medicine, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA (
Andrea Savarino, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy (
Giovanni Maga, Institute of Molecular Genetics IGM-CNR National Research Council, Pavia, Italy (


  1. Ugo, as Eli pointed out, Frontiers is a multilevel marketing scheme that depends on generating income from authors and author recruting effort from various levels of editors. It should be regarded as no better than a vanity publisher and in many regards considerably worse. To expect them to turn down income is, well. . . . .

    1. Yes, but if the only problem were that Frontiers is a bad scientific journal, then life would be much easier for scientists. The problem is, unfortunately, that subscription access journals are too expensive and open access journals are not sufficiently discriminating. And there doesn't seem to exist a middle way.

  2. Ugo:

    I agree completely that the piece in question is tripe. No, wait, tripe is quite tasty when cooked properly. So let us just agree that the piece is poorly written and poorly thought out.

    What I find interesting is the co-incidence of your piece here and the most recent posting over at John-Michael Greer's "Archdruid Report".

    Frontiers represents another aspect of the growing mistrust in science (and, having spent the last thirty years as a scientist, I see this trend as disturbing in the extreme), the ongoing commercial exploitation of the name of science to non-scientific purposes.

    The moneylenders have set up shop in the temple.

    1. Well, first of all, tripe sandwiches are an old Florentine recipe. With green sauce and a few more ingredients (some of them kept secret to foreigners) these sandwiches are absolute heaven for the connoisseur!

      Apart from tripe, Greer is sharp, as usual. There is a problem, there is a BIG problem with science. But not only in science. The problem is that money is corrupting everything. Corruption is not a bug, it is a feature of the system.

      The only good thing I can say on this subject is that science, the fraction I know, seems to be less corrupted than other section of society. As a compensation, those scientists who are not corrupt are hopelessly naive: witness how happy they are to work for companies (such as Frontiers) which exploit them without paying them. Not even immigrant tomato pickers are so naive that they work for free for the profit of their employers.

  3. Science is a For Profit Industry. What good is Science if you can't make any MONEY doing it? The only reason Universities ever got funded at all was to bring Smart People together to figure out new ways to MAKE MORE MONEY! All the rest is bullshit.

    The problem here is that with Resource Depletion, Science is losing its utility as a Money Maker, BULLSHIT makes more MONEY. In fact, BULLSHIT is the only thing which makes money anymore. LOL.

    I will cross post this one on the Diner tonight nevertheless. LOL.


  4. Ugo
    When ordinary doctors – GPs in UK – stopped smoking, the rest of us managed eventually to wean ourselves from the disinformation and evil magic of the international tobacco industry. We even quite early on stopped smoking on Edinburgh buses, which I never expected to see!
    This is a recent paper on scientists reducing their contribution to greenhouse gases.
    “With a combination of change in culture, penetration of effective communication technology in research, and monitoring of progress, there is no reason why the overall objectives of reducing emissions by 80-95% from the 1990 baseline set by many advanced economies to address climate change should not be applicable to the transport emissions from the climate research community. Clear leadership and incentives from international research platforms, research funders, and universities, is needed, of the same level that is currently leading a quiet revolution in the open access of research outputs.”

    Personally I don’t expect expanded renewable sources to maintain the present industrial inverted pyramid that we privileged scientists think of, probably in some ways correctly, as necessary civilisation. But that is another story…

  5. I understand the motivation of the Climate Deniers. What is the motivation of HIV deniers?

    1. I think the same motivation: a deep rage, not wholly unjustified



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)