Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I'm so confused: Comments and Rebuttals in ES&T

So on October 5th, this article by Liao and Kannan entitled “Widespread Occurrence of Bisphenol A in Paper and Paper Products:  Implications for Human Exposure” popped up in my google reader (from the journal Environmental Science and Technology).  Hmm... I glanced over the article, there’s a bit more exposure risk than I thought apparently.  Then, October 10th...5 days later...a comment/rebuttal (warning .pdf) and a reply to that comment and rebuttal appeared in my reader.  So, I’m amazed this comment and reply system happened so quickly.  The actual publication dates are slightly different than the dates the articles appeared in my reader (September 23rd for the article and Sept. 28th for the comment), but are we supposed to seriously believe the journal reviewed the original comment, solicited a reply from the authors, and then reviewed that in 5 days?  
If you actually read the comment you might have a hard time understanding why it was published at all.  I’m not sure the comment makes any sense.  The author of the comment essentially makes two points:  1) the authors of the paper refer to an exposure as being “several orders of magnitude” lower than a reference, when in fact the exposure is “140 thousand fold lower” than the dose and 2) the authors cite a WHO report in saying that some studies have reported adverse responses to extremely low doses of Bisphenol A, but in fact the WHO report doesn’t include those studies as part of its hazard characterization.  
Really?  Neither of these criticisms makes any sense!  Point number 1 is really just an issue of semantics:  140 thousand fold lower is several orders of magnitude lower.  Would the commenter be content with “many” instead of “several”?  The exposure is a lot lower, and marginally different methods of calculating the exposure simply show the same thing.
The second criticism completely misses the point.  Just because the WHO report doesn’t use those studies in its hazard assessment doesn’t mean those studies don’t exist (and apparently they are referenced in the WHO report).  Maybe it would have been better to cite those papers individually:  Is this really worth the publication space to point out?
Even if these were legitimate concerns (and I can’t understand how they are), they are completely irrelevant to the point of the paper (these are merely details discussed in setting up the context of the findings).  
The thing is, this comment is not about science and it isn’t even directed at the authors.  This comment is clearly for the benefit of the “various activist groups” referenced in the last line of the comment.  Why is this comment published again?  I get that there are groups out there who are going to use this article to re-enforce their belief about how the world works and the dangers of Bisphenol A, but those people aren’t necessarily interested in reality anyway, and they probably aren’t reading the minutiae of a technical journal like ES&T.  
Are these guys going to count this on their CV?  Can I just add a few publications to my CV by writing weak criticisms of published papers?  
Or should I just keep this stuff on my blog that nobody reads?

Liao C, & Kannan K (2011). Widespread Occurrence of Bisphenol A in Paper and Paper Products: Implications for Human Exposure. Environmental science & technology PMID: 21939283

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