Another "Frontiers In" journal steps in it

Almost a year ago, I wrote about a terrible article that was published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. FiPH is a legitimate, peer-reviewed journal, and they had just published a manuscript that was straight-up HIV denial, titled "Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent." At the time, it was listed as a regular review article; after much outrage, it was re-titled into an "opinion" statement, but not retracted.

Now another "Frontiers In" journal has stepped in it, publishing a paper that has the anti-vaccine groupies frothing at the mouth. Published in Frontiers in Neurology this time, the paper, "Biopersistence and brain translocation of aluminum
adjuvants of vaccines," is another review article using cherry-picked data to suggest that aluminum in vaccines accumulates in the brain and nervous system, causing "toxic effects."

The editor of this paper is Lucija Tomljenovic of the University of British Columbia. Tomljenovic is a biochemist who has made a career, with her advisor Chris Shaw, of publishing commentary suggesting that vaccines, and particularly the HPV vaccine and vaccine adjuvants, are unsafe. It probably will not shock readers that Shaw and Tomljenovic are funded in part by the The Dwoskin Family Foundation and the Katlyn Fox Foundation, both of which are big players in the anti-vaccine community (see this post at Harpocrates Speaks for more background info on those foundations). Both appeared at the 2011 Vaccine Safety Conference, with other notable vaccine foes including the NVIC's Barbara Loe Fisher and Lawrence Palevsky, a doctor who appeared in the anti-vaccine movie "The Greater Good" and apparently spoke on the topic, "Rethinking the Germ Theory." That should speak volumes about the scientific validity of the movement. Meanwhile, Shaw specifically notes in his bio, "He has two children. The youngest has not been vaccinated."

Who else appeared at that meeting? The first author of the current paper, Romain K. Gherardi.

Others have already posted stinging critiques of Shaw and Tomljenovic's previous papers (even the World Health Organization has criticized them), so I won't go further into the science--suffice it to say, Shaw & Tomljenovic are cited widely within the review, and several other important citations are self-citations of the first author, Gherardi. It should be noted that Gherardi also receives funding from the Dwoskin Foundation. Further, Tomljenovic served not only as the paper's editor, but also as a reviewer--and the Frontiers In journals as a whole have a crazy-high acceptance rate of 80-90% in the first place. Another reviewer, Mark Burns, is on FN's editorial board.

So while the anti-vaccine brigade will count this publication as a victory, it's really just another case of a poor paper being published in a shoddy journal, shepherded to publication by a like-minded editor--and you could certainly at least argue there was a conflict of interest here, with both Gherardi and Tomljenovic funded by the Dwoskins and running in the same small anti-vaccine circles. Not that it matters to those who will gleefully cite this publication, of course. The only time they really want to "follow the money" or pay attention to such matters is when the money is coming from "Big Pharma" or the government or other such boogeymen in order to allege some kind of conspiracy. Too bad they don't hold all publications up to such lofty standards, or recognize conspiracy when it's actually in their own backyard.


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By Jim Easter (not verified) on 04 Aug 2015 #permalink


Thanks for the link! I see that reference 5 in that paper is the same one that a commenter brought up in the comments on my aluminum post. It's another Gherardi paper that has a number of flaws, at least insofar as applying its findings to humans.

Thanks for posting about this!

Good catch, Tara. Orac in these pages has also shredded _Frontiers_ as being a hotbed of quackery.

I wonder about this: are the _Frontiers_ publications intended to make money for whoever is bankrolling them, or are they intended as publicity venues that can lose money as long as they promote certain ideas? Neither is better than the other of course, but it would be interesting to get a handle on the motivations involved.

Also it would be interesting to see where these articles (HIV denial last year, anti-vax this year, what next, climate denialism?) are being used as source material in both the popular media, niche media, and lobbying of elected officials. I suspect the latter is of substantial importance to the publishers or to others who have axes to grind.

We should be especially wary of the tactic of "we're only here to discuss the controversy." That is a classic way that quacks and frauds try to push their points: by stirring up what politicos call "FUD," for "fear, uncertainty, and doubt." For example it isn't necessary to assert that climate change isn't real, it's only necessary to assert that it's "still controversial" in order to block legislation and other action. You caught that on the HIV denial article, but no doubt many readers did not, and swallowed it. For which reason it's important for those of us here who hang out in other places online where these things are discussed, to step in with the relevant critiques.

The question to ask of the publishers is, "why are you giving quacks a megaphone?"

I think money. They're owned in part by Nature Publishing Group, though editorially separate. With an acceptance rate like that and their history, and acceptance rate and cost to publish, I'm sure many editors are doing it because they believe in open access, but the journals are having some pretty spectacular failures. And they did also have a climate denialism controversy, retracting a paper because in this case it pissed off the denialists:…

Then there was this paper in "Frontiers in Human Neuroscience", by Bradstreet (now-dead autism grifter) and Marco Ruggiero (HIV-denialist and GcMAF impresario), about diagnosing autism with an ultrasound scanner + photoshop:

The reviewers and boosters turned out to be dominated by Ruggiero & Bradstreet's business associates.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 16 Aug 2015 #permalink

The editor of this paper is Lucija Tomljenovic

Recall that the Frontiers business model has been compared to multi-level marketing. There are financial inducements to propose a Research Topic for a Special Issue, and then enlist one's friends and colleagues to submit articles, for which one is both editor and peer-reviewer.

So in this case, Tomljenovic has instigated a whole Special Issue on "Aluminum toxicity and human disease"...…

-- two articles by Gherardi's group on "Macrophagic Myofasciitis" (a clinical entity which no-one outside Gherardi's group has ever been able to observe), and one paper by Exley, a member of the Aluminati from way back. The title of Exley's paper indicates its level-minded objectivity and freedom from conspiratorial thought:
"Why Industry Propaganda and Political Interference Cannot Disguise the Inevitable Role Played by Human Exposure to Aluminum in Neurodegenerative Diseases, Including Alzheimer’s Disease".

Really it should be typewritten, photocopied, and stapled to powerpoles.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 16 Aug 2015 #permalink