Pinkerton LeBrain Exposes Predatory Medical Journal Practices

Recently, some classmates and I were chatting about the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' controversial decision to partner with Kraft on the Kids Eat Right campaign. Several of us noted that public perception is critical to our field, when a fellow student posted an interesting chart of how Americans gain nutrition information.

Overwhelmingly, the American public learns about nutrition through the mass media. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that the top five sources of nutrition information for Americans are television (67%), magazines (41%), internet (40%), newspapers (21%), and doctors (16%). Only one percent of survey respondents consulted a dietitian with questions about nutrition.

Of course, not all medical news reported by mass media is of high quality. 

As Fast Company reports, a researcher at Harvard shed some light on how shoddy nutrition advice circulates among the masses. Mark Shrime, a physician and PhD candidate in health policy, was frustrated by frequent research solicitations from open-access medical journals. These journals guarantee they will publish his studies, as long as he pays them $500.

Concerned about the ethical implications of this practice, Shrime put some of the journals to the test. He used a random text generator to create an article called "Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs? The Surgical and Neoplastic Role of Cacao in Breakfast Cereals" (authors: Pinkerton LeBrain and Orson G. Welles). He submitted the article to 37 journals in two weeks. At press time, 17 of 37 had agreed to publish it pending receipt of his $500 fee. Several even praised his innovative research methods. 

The idea that 17 medical journals would publish a fake research study in exchange for money is disturbing. As Fast Company points out, it can be very difficult to determine from a journal title whether it is a trustworthy source of health information. Even health professionals may have difficulty determining whether these are trustworthy publications.

Further, if a researcher with $500 and a random text generator can get published, then what is to stop any quack from publishing in these journals? And if a journalist gets a hold of a questionable study from one of these journals, writes an article, and posts it to his social media...a health craze is born out of potentially faulty science.

In other words, predatory journals such as these may play a role in the way you eat.

So what's a person with a nutrition question to do? The dietetics student in me hopes she would direct her questions to a physician or a dietitian. But we live in the information age, and sometimes we just want immediate gratification (as anyone who has ever diagnosed herself with a rare and serious illness during a 2 a.m. WebMD session knows).

If you love scouring the internet for nutrition headlines, The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers five tips for evaluating nutrition news. In addition to investigating sources of nutrition information, you should question nutrition articles that make extravagant claims (i.e., "Lose 25 pounds in one week!") or that advocate for the removal of major food groups without strong peer-reviewed evidence. 

So how about you? Where do you get your information about how to eat?