Ken Gillman: Medical science publishing: A slow-motion train wreck

Ken Gillman’s reply to Hector Warnes’ comment


         I am pleased that Hector Warnes found my commentary enjoyable and thank him for his kind comments. In order to facilitate remembrance of these important questions, it is helpful to engage reader’s emotions, positive and negative, which make memories more enduring.  Science writing can be anodyne.

         I would be interested to know how others would typify my “fierce attack on Robert Maxwell.” I felt, under the circumstances of his extreme dishonesty and obnoxiousness, that I was being quite gentle and kind about him (calling him “Billy Bunter” was quite an endearing way of referring to his physical appearance resulting from such avarice and greed).  I am sure the more intimately people knew him (I apologise if using that word in connection with him makes your skin crawl), the greater their tendency would be to regard what I said as “kind,” indeed, occasionally bordering on complimentary.

         I would like Prof. Warnes to expand further on his observations on ghost medicine.

         For an expanded understanding of this insidious issue I defer to other sources.  I gave a number of references which outline the extent to which global business interests distort the whole knowledge base of science. If I had to recommend one source to read it would be Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (2010).  On a more individual level there are numerous (known) examples of academic appointments that have been manipulated and blocked by big Pharma (was not David Healy one?).  I once was sent an email that contained multiple iterations of the contents of previous emails, from persons to whom it had previously been forwarded (so many people don’t seem to realise the default on many email programs is to copy the contents of the previous email into the reply and since they do not scroll down they do not notice that!).  Anyhow, this particular email repeated a message from the European head of Roche (this was when I was in London) which said: “Gillman is a ratbag and asks difficult questions, don’t invite him to conferences.”  So, even 40 years ago, the acquiescent yes-men were “groomed” and promoted through the academic system in preference to others.  It has been like a slow-growing cancer.

         The multiple sources I consulted, cited and recommend people read certainly convinced me that the strongly self-interested influence of the major financial players shapes every conceivable aspect of scientific education and activity.  It has always interested me, and puzzled me, why so many doctors remain so blind to this process and continue to deny that accepting the largesse of pharmaceutical companies influences their judgement.  Incurable naïveté.

         I retired from clinical practice early at the age of 56 because of my physical disability and shortly after that, when I had had more time to write one or two papers that had been on the “back-burner” for some while, someone asked me how I felt about retirement.  After some consideration I got back to them and said that I felt “angry” and disappointed, alternately.  This was because the more of those papers I wrote, the more I realised that a considerable part of my academic exertions throughout my career had been wasted because of the amount of deceitful and poor-quality material that I had to wade through to find, or at least approach, the truth. 

         Lastly, concerning “Who watches the watchmen?” “Naïve” and on the “periphery” of academia as I am, I attempted to make some constructive suggestions about the solutions to these problems.  A central pillar of that was that post-publication rating, comment and review is the answer.  That largely solves the problem of the watchmen, because everybody will be watching, nothing will be hidden behind anonymous refereeing, etc.; everybody will be able to see what has been said and it will be more transparent as to how highly regarded any work “exhibited” out there in the “e-sphere” becomes.



Oreskes N, Conway EM. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Newb York: Bloomsbury Press; 2010.


September 26, 2019