A letter to the blog asked us a question which expresses a paranoia about the peer review process that, while typical, is absolutely corrosive to the practice of science. I’m not casting any stones here, I’ve had suspicions about the motivations of certain reviewers of my grants on at least one occasion myself. The letter reads:

I am submitting an NIH proposal, and the most appropriate study section has a (perceived) conflict of interest: one study section member is at the same institution/department with my only competition. Am I inevitably putting my application in the hands of my competitor’s colleague, who could share it with my competition and steal my ideas before I have a chance to work on them? I could argue to go to a slightly different study section, but I do not think it would be as appropriate. What should I do? Does it involve Jameson?
(Slightly) Paranoid,
A Junior Scientist

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A topic that arises every now and again, particularly when I am discussing Ecstasy-related medical emergency and death, is the nature of the psychoactive ingredients in Ecstasy tablets. For definitional purposes, I consider 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) to be what is considered by the vast majority of consumers to be canonical “Ecstasy”.
It is reasonably well-established in the peer reviewed literature and the ecstasydata.org harm reduction effort that some fraction of Ecstasy that is distributed contains non-MDMA psychoactive compounds either in addition to, or replacement for, MDMA. There are, however, some nagging questions because the published data are spotty. One topic of interest to me is that of selection bias. Tablet analyses are published either from samples turned in by Ecstasy consumers or those obtained by law enforcement seizures. In the former case there is a reasonable case to be made that perhaps Ecstasy found to result in suspicious subjective effects on the user are submitted to harm reduction sites preferentially. In the case of law enforcement seizure, well, the ones that got caught are by definition not on the street for sale. And you can make up a whole list of other caveats about why the published analyses might not accurately reflect the picture of what is actually being consumed.
A recent paper doesn’t nail down every complaint but at least it compares samples submitted willingly and unwillingly by the consumer.

Vogels, N., Brunt, T., Rigter, S., van Dijk, P., Vervaeke, H., & Niesink, R. (2009). Content of ecstasy in the Netherlands: 1993-2008 Addiction Epub ahead of print Oct 5 2009; DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02707.x

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