The Longest Now

The Kostoff knowledge: Elsevier fakes peer review of COVID click-bait

The Kostoff knowledge v.14

Updates: Elsevier retraction (5/9), concern (12/17). EIC Tsatsakis removed. (~3/25).
Analyses by Schneider (10/6) & Morris (10/14). Kostoff’s article is top 1% by Altmetric.
K. publishes 3× more extreme version (10/13). Tox.Rep’s CiteScore grows 5% in Oct.
15 of Kostoff’s last 18 papers written w. Tsatsakis, the other 3 in Tsatsakis journals.

Earlier this month, Elsevier‘s Toxicology Reports (CiteScore 6.4, top quintile) published a special issue on the COVID-19 pandemic.  Its includes a remarkable article by Kostoff, et al., claiming that getting a COVID-19 vaccine is, “extremely conservatively“, 5x as likely to kill people over 65 as it is to save them, and even more harmful to younger people. (Kostoff, et al., Tox. Rep. (2020), 7, 1448-1458)

This echoes the fraudulent claims of German homeopath Harald Walach, who briefly published a similar article in MDPI Vaccines in June, before it was promptly retracted.  A few of the most outrageous claims are listed below. None of this is subtle – unbelievable assertions start in the second paragraph of the abstract; the lead author has no past experience in the field; and the article puts “pandemic” and “vaccine” in scare quotes, and makes regular use of bold italics to emphasize points that are exaggerated.

This is why we have peer review, and editors, to distinguish research from polemic. Access to a reliable + competent body of reviewers is, in theory, a primary service that giant publishers like Elsevier offer to editors. Another is their name: being an Elsevier journal means you will be taken seriously out of the gate, and added to the major indices.

We should all be concerned that our publishing model allowed such a deceptive essay to be given the veneer of legitimacy – for weeks now, without correction.  And we must hold both journals and publishers accountable for fraud that they support or legitimize – through deceptive practice, lack of claimed review, or inaction.

I want to come back to this, and discuss ways to remedy this, and some current steps in the right direction.  But first let’s look at this instance in detail – as the errors were the most obvious that I’ve seen, related papers have been retracted in recent months, and it is impossible to imagine even casual peer review missing them.  And because, as we will see, this particular Elsevier journal has been gaming the system for some time.

Article-level fraud (by the authors)

1. Extensive misuse of VAERS data: VAERS is an open public registry of unvetted self-reports of health events occurring after vaccination. Most events are not caused by vaccines, but this is a starting point for further analysis. Doctors are supposed to report any deaths or hospitalizations occurring within a week of vaccination, regardless of potential causal link.

The very openness of this data has led to it being widely cited in anti-vax propaganda, misinterpreting VAERS as a catalog of known harms and side-effects. (“Don’t Fall for VAERS scares“)


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