“We understand conflict of interest concerns, but this is why we have strict guidelines and ethics committees …..” – Prof Alan Bensoussan, director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Western Sydney University (WSU). All academics, including Alan, are fully aware of the importance of research integrity, in which, potential or perceived conflicts of interests play an integral part. As such, WSU does indeed have many rules and regulations to safeguard research integrity in order to ensure that one thing remains intact – summed up in one word: trust.
These guidelines should ensure that the trust between taxpayer and scientist (or the scientific system) remains undamaged, because once it is broken or damaged it can have very serious consequences. We can notice all around us that the trust in the scientific system has been eroded over time. Just look at the number of people who do not ‘believe’ in vaccinations or climate change, then clearly, many people have grown a very healthy distrust in scientists and in the scientific system. It is therefore extremely important that universities act swiftly and decisively when a scientist endangers this trust, because the public does not necessarily look at the specific field of science where a transgression has occurred, they tend to distrust the whole academic system – and remember they keep the system afloat, financially.
So, what is this all about? About a year ago I noticed that in a large number of published peer-reviewed acupuncture papers, authored by the NICM, they failed to declare a conflict of interest. This was quite interesting because they clearly had, and probably still have, a glaring conflict of interest. For example; both Alan Bensoussan and Caroline Smith is (was) listed as consultants, for many years, of commercial acupuncture clinics (they deleted this information as soon as they became aware that I am investigating this issue – you can find an archived page here), the director of these clinics is part of the advisory board of the NICM, students of the NICM find employment at these clinics, the NICM is actively doing research where a positive outcome will clearly benefit these clinics, and the clinics have donated $20 000 to the NICM for the “IVF project” – clearly something that needed to be declared. You can find more details about this very obvious conflict of interest here and here. But what is this IVF project? An independent journalist called it “Universities in a wacky waste of cash” whilst the NICM called it “Acupuncture to Improve Live Birth Rates for Women Undergoing IVF”, approved by a WSU ethics committee and funded to the tune of $600 000.
This is what an IVF expert had to say about this project: “IVF expert Professor Colin Matthews was outraged the National Health and Medical Research Council had allocated more than $600,000 for a study into acupuncture’s effect on IVF.” The WSU ethics committee that approved this study is fully aware that acupuncture has been shown to be nothing more than a placebo and that it is based on fake scientific principles – hence it is called a pseudoscience. This is now a problem because not only have they abandoned science but they also, seemingly, abandoned their ‘strict guidelines’ to ensure scientific integrity.
But let’s argue that the ethics committee simply did not know about this. Surely, when they are notified about this they will certainly take action to ensure that the trust between the public and academics do not further erode? So, I notified the WSU ethics committee, the advisors to the ethics committee and a number of other people at WSU regarding this issue over a number of months. And now I can reveal their response, and I will quote them; “………………………………..”. Nothing, they did not even acknowledge that they have received this information. After six months, it might be safe to assume that WSU do not plan to do anything about this issue. But then again, I am not at all surprised, as science adheres to the laws of nature (chemistry, physics, biology, etc.), pseudosciences are above those laws. Scientists are held accountable by enforcing these strict guidelines to ensure scientific integrity, sadly, these guidelines do not seem to apply to a pseudoscientist – they are just above it!
Let me try to put all of this into perspective. Most people do not consider infertility to be a life threatening medical condition. It does, however, have a severe impact on a person’s life, causing broken relationships, severe depression and in extreme cases, even suicide. The more treatment methods a person tries in order to conceive without a positive outcome, the more prone a person is to fall into severe depression (maybe it should be considered as a life threatening condition?). And this is where a pseudoscientist strike, they feed off desperation. If a researcher knows that the method that they recommend is only a placebo, then the project is unethical by default, and it should never have been approved. And oh boy, don’t they know this. There is a reason why they want to ‘integrate’ acupuncture with IVF (which has a success rate of around 45% at 35 years of age or younger, and around 5% when 42 or older), because they know acupuncture is nothing more than a theatrical placebo, and therefore they need to piggy back on something that actually works. If acupuncture worked that well, why don’t they use it as a standalone treatment option? Why did they start these commercial clinics in 2008 and only in 2013 are they doing a ‘scientific’ study to test if it is actually effective or not – wrong way round, maybe? And if the study turns out to be negative, will they close their clinics? For some reason, I don’t think so!
Having said that, I do not expect to receive any response from WSU. In a previous article I have written about the dishonest type of people that you need at the NICM, this article illustrates that the WSU management themselves are not much better – they are just as dishonest. Hence, the Vice Chancellor, Prof Barney Glover, who is aware of this and many other issues at the NICM, was also nominated for the Bent Spoon award in 2016. Oh, and did they try to squash this nomination, but to no avail – you can read about their hilarious attempts here. But, maybe it is a good idea if a couple of readers can email the ethics committee at WSU, just to ask what is going on with this issue. This might even prompt them to respond (email Steve Hannan at email@example.com).
This brings me to their scientific publications. Journals are usually independent of universities, and as such, they might be able to perform the important job of being the ‘gatekeepers’ of scientific integrity. I have contacted the editors of four scientific journals regarding only five of the NICMs scientific publications, where they intentionally did not declare their obvious conflicts of interest. Here I will discuss the response that I got from one editor (I’ll report separately on the response from the other editors, and the other organisations investigating this issue).
Here is my original message to the editor of the ‘European Journal of Integrative Medicine’:
“Dear Prof. Robinson
I am contacting you in regard to a recently published article in a special issue in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine of which you are the Editor, “Participation in a randomised controlled trial of acupuncture as an adjunct to in vitro fertilisation: the views of study patients and acupuncturists. Kylie Barr, Caroline A. Smith, Sheryl L. de Lacey. 8 (2016) 48–54”
The authors state under Conflicts of Interest that “There are no known conflicts of interest and no competing financial relationships exist”
Senior author Caroline A. Smith is a Consultant for a chain of acupuncture fertility clinics in Australia who in turn has donated a substantial amount of money to her research group. The information regarding her consultant capacity for these acupuncture clinics has since been removed from their website but can still be found on the internet archive which you can access here. The reason for this removal appears to be based on an article that I’ve written regarding this matter.
This is not an isolated case, with four articles published in 2016 on acupuncture and fertility related issues where their conflict of interest is intentionally omitted. The editors of the other journals have also been contacted.
I hereby request that this matter be investigated.
Thank you in advance.”
And here is her response dated 17/01/2017:
“Dear Dr Van der Kooy
I have contacted my Elsevier publisher and she is investigating as you requested and will get back to you in due course.
Prof Nicola Robinson”
This was unfortunately also the only response that I received from this editor and needless to say, nobody from Elsevier contacted me. As this is now more than 6 months ago, with all my subsequent follow-up emails being ignored, I believe it is safe to assume that this editor never intended to do anything about this issue. So, I had a look at this editor and it turns out that Prof Robinson happens to be an acupuncturist and that she has co-published with the research group in question – and the title of the research paper? “Does acupuncture improve the outcome of in vitro fertilization? Guidance for future trials”. So, she knows the people at the NICM quite well, she know the project quite well, and hence she is also aware that pseudoscience does not abide by the laws of nature nor does pseudoscientists abide by the laws that should ensure scientific integrity. They just need to remain quiet and ignore any complaints, and hopefully everything will blow over and they can happily continue to mislead the public. So, in this case, don’t expect anything from this ‘gatekeeper’ of science – she apparently has way too many vested interests.
In a next article, I will report on the feedback from the other editors, the NICMs attempts to mislead one editor and a couple of corrections to their ‘scientific’ publications that they have been forced to publish.