Demonic Possession is a clue here, but spotting less-than-trustworthy “scientific papers” isn’t aways this easy

Written by Dr. Kate McCann
12th September 2023

So, a colleague on Twitter was shocked – and mildly amused – to see a paper published (mind you, it was not in, say the New England Journal of Medicine) purporting that psychiatric illness was, in fact, demon possession.  Not shocked that someone said it, shocked that it was published:

And while it may seem amazing that something this outlandish has been published… is it?   Not really.  Is this a phenomenon that arose during the pandemic when scientists raced to publish latest theories and findings — most in good faith, but too many with agendas?  Unfortunately, no.

This is from the archives:  I originally wrote the below post 21/9/2019

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I had a link to a scientific paper in my inbox from a mammy who saw it trending on an anti-vaxxer site. She was wondering if it was legitimate. Her instincts were right: just because a paper looks scientific, doesn’t mean it is trust-worthy or actually scientific. Bear with me, mammies. This where it gets technical, but I’m going to try to keep it simple.

How do you know how to trust evidence? How does your pharmacist or nurse or doctor or chartered physiotherapist know what papers can be trusted?

If I send a fake paper on a made-up new cancer drug to the trusted journals read everyday like The BMJ or JAMA, they will promptly read it, reject it, and may even raise some ethical enquiries into me or my institution. If only I could be stopped there! There should be a better system to stop me from publishing not only my “new cancer drug”, but a fictitious paper on say, how I cured an outbreak of leprosy in the Wicklow mountains from other journals. Never fear: you could still get to read it! There are “journals” out there who publish ANYTHING, no matter how crazy. Journals that are identified as “Open Access” should be committed to promoting scientific knowledge… but many often aren’t. Journals that are called “predatory” are even worse. These are publishers that publish anything, really, for profit. Some Open Access journals/articles ARE committed to higher ideals. How can we tell?

How easy is it to get fake papers published in predatory or open-access journals? In 2013, an author made up an entirely fake paper with glaringly obvious flaws – fake everything – and tried to get it published. 52% of journals that are identified as predatory or unreputable open access accepted fake paper from fake author with fake data from fake medical institution for publication, seemingly without actually reading it or let alone having it expert-checked. Interested? Read more here:

“journals” promoting industries are, unfortunately, not uncommon, and also questionably ethical.

It is not, unfortunately, that easy to get publish in Cell or Nature. Standards are high even in smaller publications like our own IMJ. So, how do we know who to trust?

In a trusted journal:

  • The author – and journal –  should clearly state if a work is opinion or editorial.

  • The author should be an expert or respected practitioner in their field, and contact details to a professional address and academic institution clearly displayed.

  • That academic institution should be a real and respected place

  • Is the author in good-standing with his/her institution or relevant professional licensing boards?

  • All authors at the bottom of a legitimate paper will have a section outlining any and all potential conflicts of interest, such as where the funding was from.

  • The author should cite works from other respected journals and authors. Warnings signs are citations from media outlets or citing their own work repeatedly.

  • The title should not be misleading. Like a book, a catchy title will trend because not everyone will read the article, which may be entirely different from the title.

  • This last one is tricky: What are the authors credentials?  Just because someone is a biochemist — doesn’t mean they know anything about public health or immunology**.

Even within these guidelines, not all legitimate papers are equal. Reviews are scholarly works that look at other studies’ data. Randomized, controlled trials that follow all the rules are among the best studies. Meta-analysis is when an author pools data from multiple studies together. Some papers are on theories: good ideas that actually haven’t been proven yet. Some papers are on ideas, such as ethics or legal matters, which are being written/published to open questions up for discussion but often reflect one point of view, even an expert one.

On a related note, critical thinking has never been more important in this age of fake news and viral social media.*** I can’t recommend the  book The Irrational Ape by Irish scientist Dr. David Robert Grimes enough.

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**Post-Pandemic, this sentence I wrote in 2019 reads differently.  During the pandemic, many doctors and scientists wtih no relevant specialist training or research experience, shared opinions regarding everything from epidemiology to vaccines. Some well-intentioned but misguided; many were in ethically questionable grey areas with conflicts of interest.***Post-Pandemic, this sentence reads differently as well.  Turns out that fake news and viral social media were to be a bigger problem than anyone could predict when the pandemic emerged only months later.

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