Those of us involved with research relating to A1 and A2 beta-casein know all too well the challenges of publishing and disseminating that research. Given the extent to which beta-casein research challenges established positions, some of which are held by powerful entities, there are lots of speed bumps.
Events of recent weeks have once again illustrated some of those challenges. I lay out one such example below.
Together with Boyd Swinburn, who is Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at Auckland University, I was attempting to disseminate to a wider audience the results of a science review paper that we and other colleagues co-authored. The scientific paper itself was published earlier this year in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes which is part of the Nature Publishing stable of scientific journals.
The essential message of the science paper, to quote from the published Abstract, was that “we present evidence that A1 beta-casein cows’ milk protein is a primary causal trigger of Type 1 diabetes in individuals with genetic risk factors”
That scientific review paper in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes had seven authors, three of whom were medical professors, two were professional medical researchers, one was a former employee of The a2 Milk Company, and one (me) was a retired professor of agri-food systems. We all signed off on the content and messages therein.
In doing so, and indeed much earlier when we first submitted that paper, those of the authors who had ‘prior interest’, through employment or consulting or similar activities, made disclosures thereof in line with accepted academic practice. No doubt those disclosures led the independent and anonymous referees, plus the journal editor, to scrutinise the material closely for bias. Eventually, after a long gestation, the Nutrition and Diabetes’ paper was approved and published in May 2017.
None of the authors received payment for writing that paper. However, some would have worked on it as part of their normal job – writing papers is what their institutions expect them to do. In my case, it was a pro bono in my own time – I did it because I believed in it.
Most research papers live behind a paywall – to gain access, readers must be part of an institution that subscribes to the journal, or else pay a fee, typically between $US20 and $US50 for one-off access to the article. The other alternative is to find a sponsor who will pay a lump sum, typically between $U2000 and $US5000, to make the article free of charge.
In the case of our paper on A1 beta-casein and Type 1 diabetes, the sum of $US3500 was paid by The a2 Milk Company to make the paper ‘free access’. As a consequence, I can provide a link to the paper here, and anyone can read it.
The a2 Milk Company also funded a final editing scrub by a professional editing company.
However, the contents of the paper itself were not made available to The a2 Milk Company until it was published, and they had no corporate influence over the content or editorial processes.
Scientific papers are written for other scientists to read. They are heavy going, and can be unintelligible for those not trained in the specific disciplines covered by the paper. To reach the general public, there is need for summary material written in language that does not assume prior technical knowledge.
One way of reaching a broader public, and to do so internationally, is to write an article for ‘The Conversation’. This is an online publisher, sponsored collectively by Universities.
Accordingly, Professor Boyd Swinburn and I decided, as two of the co-authors, to write a summary for The Conversation. The drafts went back and forward between us several times as we worked on communicating the key messages with rigour and within a tight word limit – preferably no more than 1100 words, although it did slip over that. The challenge of communicating complex science in short articles, while retaining the essential rigour, is not easy!
The relevant editor from The Conversation worked with us, and eventually we were all satisfied. The editor told us we could press the ‘approve’ button and it would be published straight away.
So, we pressed the ‘approve’ button, but then nothing happened. Supposedly the delays were due to administrative hold-ups, but after ten days I received the following message from The Conversation.
“I’m sorry but after discussions during the editorial meeting, senior editors felt that they couldn’t proceed with publishing your article. The main reason is the involvement of The a2 Milk Company, for editorial support in this particular paper but also more directly in funding related research projects, and the perception that the company would stand to gain commercially.”
So, what was happening here? It looked to me that someone was not pleased by what we had written. Well, that is not unusual. That is the nature of research that challenges established positions. But academic freedom is the right to challenge those accepted positions
So, I wrote back to The Conversation.
“Does this mean that no research can be disseminated via The Conversation in situations where some entity might benefit commercially from the research?
Can your senior editors please provide the relevant Conversation policy?
And does this mean that where a commercial entity funds research then The Conversation will not disseminate that research, even when it has been published with full disclosures in journals of high academic repute? (Note that in this particular case we were not actually funded for the work and we believe all relevant disclosures were made).”
It took a week, but then a response came back that it was the senior editors’ judgement. There was no specific policy.
In an ideal world, perhaps all research would be undertaken by dis-interested parties and there would be no commercial funding of research. In practice, in many disciplines there would be very limited research undertaken if there were no commercial funding. So, rules for the ethical conduct of science are necessary.
Typical research conditions are that funding organisations do not have any control over the collection or analysis of data, or the writing of the paper, and scientists should not get any reward for a positive or negative outcome. It is also crucial that potential conflicts of interest are disclosed.
In practice. sometimes these disclosures occur and sometimes they don’t. In the case of beta-casein research, I am not aware of any research leading to pro-A2 outcomes where the appropriate disclosures were not made, nor of inappropriate influence over outcomes. In stark contrast, I have a litany of cases where people denigrating this research have not disclosed their interests and instead have falsely purported to be disinterested.
Some years back, I wrote in my book “Devil in the Milk” about both the politics and health issues of A1 and A2 beta-casein. I laid out the way the game is played and how information is both hidden and twisted. It seems that in this game there are no Queensberry rules.
Since writing the updated version of that book in 2010, I have avoided responding to false information. My philosophy has been that eventually truth will win out. But as the evidence builds, so do the counter forces that defend their position through the promotion of false views. And as in so many media issues, the general populace can get very confused as to what is true and what is false.
Getting back to the A1 beta-casein and Type 1 diabetes issue, it would have been nice if we could have disseminated via The Conversation the scientific evidence that was published by Nature Publishing. Then a wide range of people could have started their own educational journey towards judgements on these matters.
I make no judgement as to how the senior editors at The Conversation came to their decision to block publication. But I do observe, that one of the outcomes of pervasive misinformation is that well-intentioned people can make poor decisions that further stifle the process of evidence-based discussion. In trying to do ‘right’ they rely on their own unrecognised subjective biases which have been influenced by false propaganda, and thereby give protection to the ‘wrong’.
Given that my attempt at further dialogue with The Conversation editors led to stony silence, I have now published that article, authored by Professor Boyd Swinburn and myself, at my own website. I have also given open approval for republishing elsewhere. But the information game should not have to be played that way.
Keith Woodford holds an honorary position as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University (i.e., retired but still active academically). He consults for but remains independent of a range of agri-food companies, some of whom have interests in issues of beta-casein. He authored the book ‘Devil in the Milk’, published in 2007 in New Zealand (Craig Potton Publishing, now Potton and Burton), with an American version published in 2009 (Chelsea Green), and an updated NZ/Australian version in 2010 (Potton and Burton). He writes regularly on beta-casein issues at https://keithwoodford.wordpress.com . He has co-authored five peer-reviewed papers in international science and nutrition journals on beta-casein issues. He has no shareholding in any dairy company.