Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Quality control at the New Zealand Medical Journal

In late July, the New Zealand Medical Journal published an article by an Auckland University public health team that largely covered the same ground as a 2015 report by Superu, and didn't mention the Superu report. 

I'd noted a few potentially interesting questions about that:
  • How does it take nine authors at Auckland University to replicate part of the work undertaken by three authors at Superu three years ago?
  • Did none of the nine authors know about the prior Superu work? Are any of those authors part of the Growing Up In New Zealand team? It may matter - I'm pretty sure that access to that study's data is by application, so somebody had to have authorised Superu's access three years ago. It isn't a public dataset where it's plausible that work could be undertaken that the data provider wouldn't know about. This one's locked up. 
  • If none of the authors and none of the referees at the NZMJ knew that this work had already been done by Superu, what does that say about standards of that journal?
I have let the journal editor know about the problem, and to their credit they're following it up (I apparently wasn't the first to note it to them either).

I wonder what the outcome will be.

I find it remarkable that the referees chosen by a local field journal in one of their areas of specialisation (go and count the number of alcohol articles that the NZMJ publishes by the public health crowd) did not catch the prior Superu work. 
The latest edition of the NZMJ has a letter from one of the study's authors. I copy it here in its entirety.
Clarification on maternal alcohol consumption

On 27 July 2018 our peer-reviewed paper1 was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal. The article presented important findings on maternal alcohol consumption in New Zealand and attracted considerable media interest.

Subsequently, our attention has been drawn to a similar analysis undertaken by SUPERU (the previous government unit whose work focused on “what works to improve the lives of families and whanau”, between 2004 and 2018). The report was published online as a technical report in 2015 (http://www.superu.govt.nz/research-report-patterns-dynamics-alcohol-consumption-during-pregnancy).

We wish to acknowledge this earlier report, of which we had been unaware. We accessed data from the GUINZ dataset having applied for data access for our analyses in 2014. The SUPERU researchers used the same data in their analyses. We can categorically state we did not draw our data from the SUPERU report and apologise if there was confusion about this.

The fact that many of our findings were in common with those presented in their technical report speaks to the quality of the dataset and expertise in both groups of researchers, and underlines the confidence we have in this information for public health action.
It would have been odd to claim that they drew their data from the Superu work; the regressions are specified differently and so have different coefficients.

I don't know how a team of nine researchers in this space has nobody that knew about the prior Superu work, but I guess that's what's happened.

I have a harder time understanding how none of the referees caught it.

There remains no note on the original published article linking to the clarification letter, nor any note in the Journal about what improvements in refereeing they might be considering.

Consider this a public health warning about alcohol research published in the New Zealand Medical Journal. If the article lends itself to an accompanying editorial by Doug Sellman and Jennie Connor, quality control might not be quite what you'd have hoped for.

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