Nature Publishing promote bad autism science

UPDATE: Nature Publishing Group now appear to have removed the links criticised in this post and the page looks to be much improved (although see the additional criticism at LBRB)

Nature Publishing’s Publishing Group’s (NPG) Scitable has previously been a fairly good example of accessible online science information. However, as Kev has noted, Nature’s NPG’s autism Scitable is well below their usual standard:

who thought it necessary to link to no less than three anti-vaccine links on the home page of this….blog? Wiki? Two links to Autism Speaks whose controllers recently attended a DAN! conference and one link to ARI itself.

Nature also links to Thoughtful House (the US autism clinic where Wakefield was based) when “Explaining the rise of reported cases”. Classy.

Particularly interesting – ‘interesting’ in the banging-head-on-desk-sense of the world – is the Autism Research Institute document they link re the Nutritional Treatment of autism. I should be clear that the Nature Nature Publishing Group Scitable page links only three pages on the treatment of autism; this is one of those three and the only link on nutritional treatment, so the ARI link is very is prominent on the page.

The ARI document (authored by James B. Adams) claims to offer a

simple summary of the major biomedical treatments available to help children and adults with autism/Asperger’s. Biomedical treatments will not help every child, but they have helped thousands of children improve, sometimes dramatically.

Reading the document Nature link is like bad science bingo. From a quick read, one can note issues like:

  • Restricted diets are suggested, without good evidence (p. 4).
  • IgG tests are suggested (p. 5) despite lack of evidence of clinical utility.
  • A wide array of nutritional supplements are suggested, despite lack of good evidence (p. 10-13)
  • Anti-fungal drugs (which can have serious side effects) are suggested as anti-yeast measures, despite a lack of decent evidence for either yeast as a cause of autistic symptoms or the utility of these drugs as a treatment for this supposed problem (p. 17-8).  This section also suggests a restricted diet, despite a lack of good evidence.
  • The use of chelation therapy is suggested (p. 24-5), despite the lack of good evidence that it’s useful for autistic people and the fact that chelation therapy has killed.

To be clear: Nature Publishing are linking a document which suggests autism treatments that lack decent evidence and are potentially harmful. This document is focussed on suggesting treatments for autistic children: a rather vulnerable section of the population. Moreover, this is the only page Nature’s NPG’s Scitable links regarding nutritional treatments for autism – so it ignores the decent research that has been done on the topic in order to direct readers to this ARI document.

If Nature Publishing have a duty of care to their readers – and their readers’ children – they are failing here. At any rate, this is terrible science communication.

EDIT: following a comment from Michelle, I have edited this post to make more explicit that I am referring to Nature Publishing Group and not the journal Nature. However, I would argue that NPG should not use the nature.com URL to host such poor material – unless they want to risk harming the reputation of associated brands.

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9 Comments

Filed under autism, autistic spectrum disorders

9 responses to “Nature Publishing promote bad autism science

  1. Only had a quick look at scitable, but it seems to be user-generated content? I know nature are experimenting with this kind of thing, online comments on papers for example, but they should note that their brand can be damaged if people can use it without editorial oversight. Their reputation is the most valuable asset they have.

    • Thanks – not ‘conventional’ UGC, afaict. Nature says that Scitable is

      A free science library and personal learning tool brought to you by Nature Publishing Group, the world’s leading publisher of science. Scitable currently concentrates on genetics, the study of evolution, variation, and the rich complexity of living organisms.

      There are mentions of editors etc. If this is unmoderated or lightly moderated UGC, Nature needs to make this clear…

  2. Maxine

    Just to clarify – Nature is a journal, which is editorially independent and pubilshed by NPG.
    Scitable is a product of Nature Education, a separate division of the company and has nothing to do with the journal Nature. Therefore this post is wrong in stating, for example, “Nature links to”….as “Nature” is not publishing the content.
    See NPG’s company website for more information:
    http://www.nature.com/npg_/company_info/index.html
    An analogy would be criticising a book for something written in another book that shared the same publisher. Or criticising the Sun newspaper for something written in the Times.

    • Maxine – thanks for the clarification. The first line of the post does make clear that I am talking about Nature Publishing. I will edit the post to make this more explicit, though.

      To be fair, the branding of the Scitable does clearly link this to the name Nature. For example, one might note the use of the nature.com URL and I would argue that – if the aim is to avoid harming the Nature (journal) brand – it would be advisable not to use nature.com to host such poor material: analogously, the Times’ reputation as a broadsheet might suffer if they began hosting Page 3 on timesonline.co.uk However, I am happy to clarify this issue.

    • Ken Pidcock

      See NPG’s company website for more information:

      Yes, do. Does it look at all familiar? I’m assuming that this comment preceded the correction, in which case Maxine makes a valid point. But the fact is that Nature Publishing Group has everything to do with Nature. Nature is NPG’s source of authority, and NPG is thus obligated to maintain Nature’s standard of scientific integrity

  3. Hmm, it seems to be fixed now: http://www.nature.com/scitable/spotlight/Autism-8277315#

    I don’t see any offending links on the front page. And it seems to only have a front page.

  4. Crazycolours

    Shocking. As a parent of a child with ASD, coming across something like this in the confusing and frightening time after diagnosis can never be a good thing, especially when you’re desperate for information on treatment and causes.

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