Thursday, March 23, 2017

Evidence? We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence

One of my posts requires clarification. The post "A paper of mine was published. Did anyone read it?" went live in August 2014 and has been viewed 5133 times to date.

A reader had emailed me to ask if I might know why two papers he had written did not cause much of a stir in the orthopedic world. One reason might have been that the papers appeared in an obscure orthopedic journal.

I then wrote: "A paper in Physics World claims that that 90% of published papers are never cited and 50% are never read by anyone but the authors and the journals' peer reviewers." This is simply not true.

The link in the above paragraph originally went to a nebulous Indiana University web page and eventually became a "file not found." The source of the 2007 Physics World paper remained elusive. The subject came up again about a week ago on Twitter and a follower, @TirathPatelMD, sent me a link to the full text.

Here is how the article began:

I contacted the author, Lokman I. Meho PhD, who was then a librarian at Indiana and is now Director of Libraries at the American University of Beirut. In an email, he told me that the first two sentences of his article were added by the magazine's editor who apparently had heard the figures at a lecture in the UK. The exact source of the editor's information is unknown.

Meho’s piece wasn't a study at all. It was an invited review of citation analysis. Physics World is not a peer-reviewed journal. It's a magazine. According to Google Scholar, Meho’s paper has been cited 267 times—so I wasn’t the only one. Even the prestigious Smithsonian Magazine mentioned it as follows in a March 2014 article.
I had planned to write an overview of the issues surrounding citations and the problem of determining how many articles are actually read. Citations can be somewhat tracked, but the number of times a print journal article has been read can’t be determined. It is also difficult online because a page view (which is all that can be counted) is not the same as knowing whether someone read the entire paper. See my post "Does anyone really read anything online?"

I didn't go ahead with my critique because someone had already done it better than I could have. Dahlia Remler of the London School of Economics and Political Science posted a comprehensive essay on the subject. She too had contacted Prof. Meho who told her exactly what he told me about the origin of the information in question.

The number of citations differs according to what discipline is being investigated. She wrote 12% of medicine articles are not cited, compared to 82% for the humanities, 27% for natural sciences, 32% for social sciences and provided a reference.

Maybe more than fifty percent of all research papers may never read by anyone except the authors, the manuscript reviewers, and the journal editor, but no evidence exists to verify that statement.


Oldfoolrn said...

Lot's of things were done without evidence back in the good old days. I'm thinking of things like incidental appendectomies or fooling around with a portion of the spleen. If anyone asked why, the response was always "I'm taking this out on an EMPIRICAL basis," usually with the insinuation that it was a ridiculous question to be asked of a great surgeon.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Yes, incidental appendectomies were a thing 40-50 years ago. We thought it was a good idea with no evidence to support it.

A friend just had a 4-vessel CABG at a major academic center. Despite a lack of evidence [,, and] that incentive spirometers are effective, he was told to use one in the hospital and to use it hourly at home which he has faithfully done.

Oldfoolrn said...

I think incentive spirometers are in vogue because hospitals can bill insurance carriers $120 for about 2 bucks worth of plastic.

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