Harvard-laundering (the next stage of the Lancet scandal)

We’ve been talking a lot recently about how the Lancet brand has been used to launder questionable research.

Things are changing; though! People have sent me links showing that Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine have retracted the controversial Surgisphere papers, or issued expressions of concern, or whatever.

It’s good to see a scientific journal admit mistakes. It took Lancet 12 years to retract the Wakefield vaccine-denial paper and only 3 weeks to retract the latest paper. At this rate they’ll soon be able to be retracting papers in 15 seconds or less!

One thing that’s too bad about these extreme cases is that they can be used to get run-of-the-mill bad-but-not-fraudulent science off the hook. I don’t think that in a million years Lancet would consider retracting or expressing concern about that gun control paper (see criticisms here and here)—no fraud was involved there, it was just bad science, useless research that happened to come to a political conclusion that fit the journal editors’ preconceptions. So let’s not forget that, just cos some papers are retracted amid massive irregularities, that doesn’t mean that the un-retracted papers are necessarily any good at all.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about here. What I wanted to talk about today is the Harvard connection.

Here’s the affiliation section of that Lancet paper:

Hmmmm . . . the journal editors may have thought. It’s an observational analysis of coronavirus treatments, one of the authors is from Surgisphere Corporation (?), one is from some heart center in Swizerland—is coronavirus a heart disease?—one is in a department of biomedical engineering (kinda strange, as there’s no biomedical engineering involved here), and one is at HCA Research Institute, which seems to be the research division of a big health-care company. The first author, though, he’s listed as the “William Harvey Distinguished Chair in Advanced Cardiovascular Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital,” which is affiliated with . . . Harvard!

Harvard—hey, we’ve heard of them. They do good work at Harvard! You don’t get to be a professor at Harvard Medical School by just taking an analysis that someone else did, of data that someone else collected and you’ve never seen, and then putting your name on it. It doesn’t work that way! This isn’t Cornell or Ohio State or the University of California, it’s Harvard, goddamn it. Even the people who did that Stanford study, flawed as it was, they collected and analyzed the data themselves.

It says in the Contributors section of the paper that “The study was conceived and designed by MRM and ANP. Acquisition of data and statistical analysis of the data were supervised and performed by SSD. MRM drafted the manuscript and all authors participated in critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content. MRM and ANP supervised the study.” MRM is the Harvard guy. But I really don’t know what it means to have “conceived,” “designed,” and “supervised’ the study. It seems that SSD (the Surgisphere guy) did the actual work.

Aaaaand, the analysis involves some tricky statistical adjustment but all the authors were M.D.’s with no apparent statistical expertise, so who did that statistical adjustment? It says, “We acknowledge Jide Olayinka (Surgisphere) for their helpful statistical review of the manuscript,” but that’s just a review. Presumably this person didn’t actually do the work, or he would’ve been a coauthor, no?

So what did the Lancet editors think about the statistics when they received this paper? I guess we’ll never know because reviews are TOP SECRET because secrecy. But maybe they thought: Hey, the first author is a professor at HARVARD! We can trust him. A Harvard professor would never just sign off on questionable work as a way of getting a publication in Lancet. It doesn’t work that way.

I have no idea. I don’t know any of these people. I don’t even know the “sci-fi writer and adult content model” who are said to work for Surgisphere. The data and analysis may all be sitting somewhere, maybe in the same place as Brian Wansink’s bottomless soup bowl, Mary Rosh’s original survey data, the original version of that wikipedia article that Ed Wegman plagiarized, and the “real killer” who O.J. is still hunting down.

But I do wonder if Harvard was being used to launder this work. If I were a Lancet editor, I’d be kind of annoyed at Harvard. If I worked at Harvard, I’d be kind of annoyed some part of my university’s reputation is being spent in this way.

More from the U.K. Science Media Centre here. They emphasize the value of controlled experiments, which I agree with. I do think that observational studies can be useful, but you have to take the adjustment problems seriously. It’s not enough to have zero authors with statistical expertise in such a difficult problem. Even if one of the authors is the so-and-so Chair at You-Know-Where.

And more from Catherine Offord here.

P.S. If only someone could send me a picture of an adorable cat spinning in the dryer, that would be a perfect illustration of reputation laundering.

P.P.S. Conflict of interest: I went to MIT so maybe all this Harvard-bashing is sour grapes. Also I was a student at Harvard and I’ve taught at Harvard, so maybe I’m too protective of Harvard’s reputation.