Following on a previous post discussing how bogus magazines pretending to be scientific journals can affect the judgement of non-specialists, a brief 5 steps method to pin-point dubious publications is described. This method is not infallible and you must remain cautious, as pseudoscience may still dodge the test.
Case study: Entropy 2013, 15(4), 1416-1463
Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases
1 – Is the journal a well-established journal such as Nature, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, etc.? Articles in prestigious journals can generally be trusted because these articles go through a tough review process (sometimes they publish rubbish but it is uncommon and the rotten egg is discovered sooner or later). Scientists love publishing in well-established journals. You can look at the “impact factor” of the journal (You can Google it) set a lower threshold of between 3 to 5 (Though in some not-very-popular areas you could go much lower than 3).
Entropy is not a well-established journal for general science or biomedicine (I doubt it is for any discipline; its impact factor is 1.18). It absolutely doesn’t mean that the article will be flawed but it means we will have to be careful and follow the next steps.
2 – Check authors’ affiliations. Do they work in a respectable University? Or do they claim to work in University of Lala Land or no university at all?
One of the authors is an “independent scientist”. We are not in the 17th century anymore. Science is a very expensive enterprise and I would be amazed if anyone -apart from Russian oligarchs, Arab princes or Bill Gate’s descendants- could be an “independent scientist”. The last author however works at a very prestigious University so we can carry on reading. (Still weird…)
3 – Check the Journal’s speciality and the article’s research topic. Are the people in the journal knowledgeable in the area the article deals with?
Here we have the first big problem: The journal, Entropy, describes itself as “an international and interdisciplinary open access journal of entropy and information studies”. Originally, Entropy was a subject of study of thermodynamics, a branch of physics dealing with heat and energy (I wrote about thermodynamics in the past; also see Oxford dictionary). When did physicists (or mathematicians) become experts in the area of “Gut Microbiome and Pathways to Modern Diseases”? Is it not the business of medics? Or biologists? Or biochemists?
4 – Check the claims in the title and summary of the article. Are they reasonable for the journal publishing them? This is very important; for example, if scientists find a cure for AIDS their article will be published in one of the most prestigious journals. Maybe even in the two most sought after journals of the scientific world at the same time; it happened after the completion of the human genome (1, 2). The discovery of the HIV was published in just one of the journals but in 2 separate articles at the same time (3, 4). There is no way that something really important will escape the radar of the editors.
This article is attributing pretty much all the chronic diseases of the modern world to a single agent, glyphosate. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if just by getting rid of one chemical we could be as healthy and happy as we have never been? A single agent! If this were true, it would go straight into Nature Magazine and the scientific world would have gone mad before you could even notice the article.
5 – Do the claims at least make sense?
(this has got to be rubbish) Here we really hit it. The authors state in the summary that glyphosate is responsible for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Ah! Also gastrointestinal disorders. Glyphosate responsible for obesity, really? Not potato-coachness; not over eating; not driving instead of walking 100 metres: glyphosate. Similar questions should be asked for all the other diseases. It is also important to mention that glyphosate was invented years after there was already obese people and people with cancer and people with heart disease, etc.
Anyway, for me the best example of things not making sense is the sentence: “glyphosate is the “textbook example” of exogenous semiotic entropy”. What?! All modern diseases are caused by semiotic entropy? These sure are 9 words picked at random and scrambled to form a sentence-like string of words; Individual words make sense; the sentence does not.
You can read the article where everything (except clear evidence) is shown here. The authors paid 1200 Swiss Francs (about £820 or $1280) to have it published there. The main experimental evidence that they present against this evil “textbook example” of exogenous semiotic entropy is a widely discredited paper published in a journal with an impact factor of 2.999 (yes 2.999). As an educated and scientifically trained individual I think it is a laugh and I believe it is so poor that even non-scientists will laugh. But just in case non-scientists could take it seriously, I wrote the above guide to detect pseudoscientific papers at a glance.Follow @arielpoliandri
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(1) Nature 409, 860–921 (2001)
(2) Science 291, 1304–1351 (2001)
(3) Science 220, 865-867 (1983)
(3) Science 220, 868-871 (1983)