Friday, 9 November 2018

What is the worst paper ever written?

Recently on Quora a question was asked, “What is the worst research paper ever written?” I had a think about that, and two previous posters had said that plagiarised papers were the worst (which I find hard to disagree with) and the other said that the first paper by Watson & Crick on DNA was very bad, but they pushed through the review process to clarify the model. I am not so sure that I would regard an early draft qualifies as the 'worst paper', as the authors went on to win the Nobel prize.

My own candidates were immediately clear. I thought of two researchers, but found it impossible to choose between them. So I wrote an answer detailing why I could not choose a 'worst'.

The two researchers who sprang to mind were the now-discredited Dr Andrew Wakefield (lead author of non-causal research on vaccinations leading to ADHD), and Dr Ancel Keys (lead author of what is said to be overly selected data showing fat and salt as key causal factors in heart disease). The former has left many children vulnerable to childhood diseases which have long-term life impacts; the latter had huge impact due to his close association with a US President, so has potentially misdirected research into heart disease for 60 years, by appearing to ignore potential heart disease factors such as sugar and simple carbohydrates.

It appears that both of these researchers thought that they had found the magic bullet, so stopped looking and checking to ensure that later data continued to fit their original hypothesis, and evolving that hypothesis if not. Instead, both appear to have ignored data which didn't fit. Dr Keys in particular appears to have ignored 15 of the 22 country data sets to base his 'Mediterranean diet' advice on the 7 nations results which fitted with his hypothesis. With his government contacts, this has meant that two generations of medical advice have been based on studies which ignored 70% of the data.

Key publications from both authors are:
  • Wakefield, A., Murch, S., Anthony, A., et al. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet, 351 (9103), 637–41. https://doi.org/10.1016%2FS0140-6736(97)11096-0
  • Keys, A. (1980). Seven countries. A multivariate analysis of death and coronary heart disease. USA: Harvard University Press.
  • Keys A. (1970). Coronary heart disease in seven countries I. The study program and objectives. Circulation, 41(1), 186-195.
  • Keys A. (1956). The diet and the development of coronary heart disease. Journal of Chronic Disease, 4(4), 364–380. https://doi.org/10.1016/0021-9681(56)90040-6
As I mentioned, Dr Arthur Wakefield has been discredited. Many subsequent  studies have shown the methodological flaws and the lack of causation in the original work.

Dr Ancel Keys probably needs more explanation, and I would suggest you read through Dr Zoe Harcombe's very carefully thought-out and clearly presented arguments, as well as reviewing Professor John Yudkin's and Dr Robert Lustig's contributions in this area.

Read the papers, think on it, and decide for yourselves. 



Sam



References: 

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