Sacrificing Truth and Science to Vilify Juul
Two prominent U.S. Senators want Juul to be punished for paying a scientific journal to “rig the science,” as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) put it. According to Warren and several news reports, the e-cigarette company paid American Journal of Health Behavior (AJHB) over $51,000 to publish a special issue containing 11 studies conducted by scientists and researchers funded by Juul. This, Warren asserts, is the same type of dirty trick Big Tobacco used to put the science that their products were harmful in doubt. In this instance, however, it’s anti-tobacco advocates playing the role of merchants of doubt and using political pressure to discredit legitimate science.
Though few outside of academia may be aware, many peer-reviewed journals charge authors fees to publish their research. While peer reviewers often work for free, there are costs associated with processing submissions, proof-reading, editing, creating special tables or figures, and printing; services for which journals often charge authors. For example, the journal Nature charges authors over $11,000 per paper if authors want it to be open-access to anyone in the public to read. Some, including AJHB, also offer an “expedited” review service, allowing authors to speed up a process that might otherwise take several months.
According to AJHB’s editor in chief, Dr. Elbert Glover, with whom I corresponded, Juul paid the Journal no more and no less than any other author for review services.
Submitting a paper to AJHB is free, but the Journal does charge $2,500 to publish each article in a special issue. Another $500 will make an article available for the non-subscribing public to read. There is also a $150 charge for each table, figure, or graph that exceed a total of six. The Journal also offers grammatical services for $500 per article. Lastly, authors can pay an additional per-article fee to have its review and/or editing expedited. It appears Juul selected all of these options, so the per-article cost it paid was $4,000 plus an average of $410 extra for tables and figures per article.
As for expedited review, AJHB pays reviewers to incentivize a speedy process. According to one outlet, this amounted to a measly $75 for reviewers to hand in their comments within a week rather than the many weeks-to-months it sometimes takes for critical reviews. This, the article notes “is not standard practice.” But, while perhaps not yet widely practiced, paying peer reviewers is far from unheard of, even at top journals, like the Lancet. More importantly, as Dr. Glover pointed out, these fees are for “a quick turn-around, not for a positive review.” Furthermore, the Journal made no effort to hide the fact that the special issue was funded by Juul nor that the papers contained within were written by people affiliated with the company.
Doing the math, assuming there was the minimum of two reviewers for all 12 of the articles Juul submitted (one was rejected), that puts the total amount Juul paid in normal fees to the Journal at over $50,000 -- exactly the amount reported in news stories and exactly the amount any other author would have been charged.
Juul is, by no means, a perfect company, but from the information available there is no reason to suspect it paid off an academic journal to rubber-stamp its research. But in a quest to vilify Juul, and by extension the entire vapor industry, there is little room for this hard truth.
Crusaders and journalists seem unconcerned about spreading this misleading narrative in the name of the anti-nicotine cause. The New York Times, Salon, and others, ran stories insinuating that Juul engaged in “academic corruption.” Sens. Warren and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have called on the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Juul. But, the victim of this campaign and the target of that investigation won’t just be Juul, but the Journal wrongfully accused of unethically taking Juul’s money. Worse, it might foment public distrust of science altogether.
The Journal has suddenly come under a cloud of suspicion. For example, one of the six sentences of the Journal’s Wikipedia article is now dedicated to describing the Juul controversy. Board members and editors are resigning; not because they think the Journal acted unethically, but according to Dr. Glover because of the negative news stories. If Sen. Warren gets her wish for an official investigation, the Journal’s name will be further dragged through the mud. And lay readers, unfamiliar with the academic publishing and peer-review processes, may become more skeptical, not just about this Journal, but toward all scientific publications.
It is worth noting that in all of feigned outrage over this “scandal,” nobody has claimed that the science conducted by Juul and published by AJHB is bad. They haven’t pointed to methodological flaws or any other reason to doubt that the authors and reviewers conducted the research and reviews in good faith. That doesn’t mean the studies are without flaws. But it does indicate that the journalists reporting on the studies and rabble-rousing politicians either can’t evaluate science on its own merits or know doing so would undermine their cause. So they retreat to that laziest of rhetorical weapons; attacking the messenger rather than the message.
Unfortunately, this sort of ad hominem and doubt-casting strategy is highly effective, which is why Big Tobacco employed those same tactics decades ago. But now it’s the anti-nicotine advocates who are fudging the truth and trying to discredit science in order to win the battle for public opinion. They very well might succeed, but if it comes at the cost of the truth and the integrity of our institutions, we will all lose.
Michelle Minton is a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.