Trial By Error: An Exchange of Letters Concerning Professor Chalder’s Latest Disaster of a Paper

By David Tuller, DrPH

Last week, Brian Hughes and I sent a letter to Occupational Medicine, which recently published yet another of Professor Trudie Chalder’s awful papers. Among other problems, Professor Chalder and her four co-authors completely misstated their own findings in the text of the paper. We called for retraction of the paper.

In the past, I have preferred to send such letters directly to a journal’s editor or editors, as a way of creating more attention and perhaps triggering some action. My interest has been more in prompting editors to address major issues than in having my letters officially published. In this case, Occupational Medicine‘s masthead does not include e-mails for specific editors, so we sent our letter to the journal through the formal submissions process. We also posted it on a pre-print server.

On Monday, we received an e-mail from an assistant editor at Occupational Medicine. They relayed a request from the editor-in-chief that we trim our letter from 1326 words to the strict maximum of 500 words and re-submit it. The editor-in-chief also suggested that we send the full, unedited version of our letter to the paper’s corresponding author–i.e. Professor Chalder.

This response did not seem commensurate with the gravity of the concerns Professor Hughes and I raised. This paper’s mangled percentages were submitted by an experienced team of investigators from King’s College London, including three professors. The article passed peer-review and was published by the journal, which is sponsored by the Society of Occupational Medicine. Shouldn’t an editor-in-chief be aghast that this happened on their watch?

Instead of promising to investigate the matter, the journal offered us the chance to publish a bare-bones letter. The response we received provided no indication that further steps would be pursued. The journal also placed on us the burden of informing the authors that they submitted a manuscript with disqualifying flaws. But delivering the bad news to Professor Chalder and suggesting a course of remedial statistics is the journal’s responsibility, not ours.

Professor Hughes and I therefore have sent the following response to Occupational Medicine.


Dear [name redacted],

Thank you for your message. We understand the Editor-in-Chief’s request, but we wish to decline that suggestion.

Our concern is not with having a ‘Letter to the Editor’ published in Occupational Medicine. Rather, our intent is to formally notify the Editor-in-Chief of significant technical problems with the paper by Stevelink et al. that was recently published by the journal.

As outlined in our letter, the paper contains basic technical statistical mistakes, inaccurately stated results, and other major lapses. Our main goal in writing was to urge the Editor-in-Chief to investigate the issue and ultimately retract the paper, not to engage in an exchange of opinions with the original authors about why they submitted a problematic manuscript.

We believe it is the journal’s role, not ours, to pursue these issues with the authors (and, possibly, with the peer reviewers who recommended the paper for publication). It is for the journal to determine how this paper came to be published, and to inform readers of what is being done to address the matter.

To repeat, we are not concerned with whether or not our letter is published in the journal. This is a formal correspondence with the Editor-in-Chief concerning our call for retraction of the paper by Stevelink et al. We therefore ask that you forward the letter again to the Editor-in-Chief for his urgent attention.

We look forward to seeing prompt action on the concerns we have raised.

Yours sincerely,

Brian Hughes
National University of Ireland, Galway

David Tuller
University of California, Berkeley

7 thoughts on “Trial By Error: An Exchange of Letters Concerning Professor Chalder’s Latest Disaster of a Paper”

  1. A mix of disinterest, laziness, and a certain conceit seems to lie behind these very strange missives returned from Editors (etc) of medical journals. I think we can say that the ‘scientific method’ left the building a good while ago. Thankyou both for continuing to hold feet to fire.

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt, PhD

    The mention of serious problems and the retraction of an incorrect paper should have been enough. People should realize by now that you are not going to go away.

    From “The times they are a-changin’:” ‘there’s a battle outside and it’s raging.’ And they are going to be on the wrong side, but they still have enough time to join the future.

    For their sake, I hope they listen to you and act. I think the changes are slowly adding momentum – because of researchers like you.

  3. I believe firm boundaries and high standards need to be maintained in the publication of articles in journals, like Occupational Medicine. A permissive culture, where anything goes, may subsequently be reflected in poor patient care. I would have thought that the remit of the Editor-in-Chief, was to ensure that at least adequate standards are met?

  4. Medicine glanced at the scientific method and decided, Thanks But No Thanks. Appeal to authority, mind magic, and stick-shaking are so much easier that the dogged determination and hard work required by proper scientific methodology.

    Time to go to the club for a glass of room-temperature gin, and to plan the next Caribbean vacation, err, “conference”. And a hearty slap on the back for putting those nasty patients and their vexatious advocates in their proper places.

  5. Where’s the medical community’s concern that doctors are being badly misinformed by badly reported ‘science’? It should be outraged but at best it’s disinterested. Supporting and defending fellow doctors against an imaginary foe appears to be far more important than determining and knowing the truth. We’ve had scandal after scandal (e.g. Bristol heart scandal, Mid Staffs hospital scandal, Morecombe Bay maternity scandal, Shropshire baby deaths scandal) in the UK, and report after report, but nothing much seems to change. My guess is that it’s just too scary for doctors to rock the medical boat, whether that be in relation to standards of medical practice, nursing care or research science, and the old boys’ culture security blanket is far too comforting to cast aside.

    I understand that many UK (NHS) doctors receive Clinical Excellence Awards that, in part, are based on their contribution to medical research/science. ( Shouldn’t they therefore feel duty-bound to flag up deficient medical science that they come across, or are they just playing at being scientists? Perhaps the NHS should boost the salaries of those doctors who’ve highlighted bad medicine, including bad research practices? That might be just the incentive that doctors need if improving patient care and safety isn’t a good enough reason for them to speak out.

  6. Pingback: Trial By Error: An Exchange of Letters Concerning Professor Chalder’s Latest Disaster of a Paper – Virology Hub

  7. Thank you for all that you do to provide accurate information and data to the world. I am not a scientist, biologist, virologist, or in the medical field whatsoever but I sometimes wish I was because this is all very interesting stuff. There doesn’t seem to be a field that ISN’T corrupt and full of convoluted information and all the people out there rely on “scientific data” and the data is far from scientific, just a bunch of propaganda b.s. Thank you for keeping it real.

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