Dubious and Fraudulent Activities in Sports Nutrition

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Ronald J. Maughan University of St Andrews

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There is a long history of fraud in every sphere of human activity, and science is no exception. Various checks are in place to try to limit the success of those who would deceive others, but the system is far from perfect. Those who have time on their hands to follow the flaws and fabrications in published papers that are subsequently retracted (https://retractionwatch.com/) will be familiar with the darker side of scientific publishing. Papers are retracted because of clear errors ranging from carelessness in data analysis to deliberate fabrication of results. Some involve high-profile names, and no field of science is immune. The errors that are detected are probably only the tip of the iceberg, and the peer-review process is failing badly in these cases.

Many years ago, I was asked to review a paper for a journal: the paper relied on correction of the measured circulating concentration of several substrates and metabolites for the relatively large changes in plasma volume that inevitably occur in high-intensity exercise. The change in plasma volume was calculated from the well-established Dill and Costill formula that uses changes in hemoglobin concentration and hematocrit for the calculation of plasma volume change. However, the authors of the paper under review had used an automated cell counter to measure hematocrit: this method is flawed when used in samples collected before and after hard exercise because of the changes in plasma osmolality that occur (see Watson & Maughan, 2014 for an explanation of this, though that paper had not been published at that time). I rejected the paper for that reason (among others), and the editor in turn duly informed the authors. A few weeks later, I was somewhat surprised to receive the same manuscript from a different journal for review. The only difference was that hematocrit was now measured by spun hematocrit, an acceptable method but one that could not have been applied to stored samples. I informed the editor of the dishonesty on the part of the authors, and the paper was again rejected. No doubt it was subsequently published elsewhere.

There are many other equally unacceptable but often more subtle practices in the world of sport and exercise science (and no doubt elsewhere). A recent issue of this journal contained a series of papers from a small group meeting on dietary supplements and the elite athlete convened by the Medical and Scientific Commission of the International Olympic Committee. Within days, an online nutrition industry journal published an advertorial announcing that the International Olympic Committee endorsed the use of collagen as a dietary supplement. What the paper actually said was that “Gelatin and collagen supplements appear to be low risk. Few data are available, but increased collagen production and decreased pain seem possible. Functional benefits, recovery from injury, and effects in elite athletes are not known.” This seems like something less than an endorsement of the product.

At about the same time, I received, in my capacity as an author of a paper that recently appeared in this journal, an e-mail relating to that paper, which was a summary of the new International Olympic Committee position on dietary supplements (Maughan et al., 2018). It informed me that “Your research article is awarded as Winner at World University Championship in Neurology – 2018.” Astonishing! A review paper on dietary supplements wins an award for research papers in neurology. The e-mail then went on to ask for biographies and contact details of all authors. I had trouble working out what the purpose of this scam was: it was only when I scrolled down through the message that I saw that, to claim the award, the sum of US$500 per author should be transferred to a bank account in Rajasthan, India. With 25 authors on the paper, that is US$12,500. Their website identifies numerous “winners” who have claimed their awards, so the scam is working.

Every day I also receive several requests for papers from predatory pay-to-publish journals and several invitations to be guest keynote speaker at conferences on topics that I have no interest or expertise in. These are usually deleted unopened, but recently I replied to one. Because of my “outstanding record of achievement in the field of condensed matter physics,” I was asked to submit a keynote paper to be presented at a conference on this topic in China. I went to the website and was asked to give an e-mail address and the title of my presentation. I gave a false name and e-mail address (dishonest, I know, but . . .) and opted to present on “Early pre-Christian burial sites on the island of Barra”—about as far removed from the topic of the conference as I could think of. Within minutes, the topic and my (false) name duly appeared on the conference website as confirmed presentations (along with one from Germany and two from the United States). It was only when I e-mailed the conference organizer to say that I had asked my travel agent to bill them directly for the cost of my business class flight to China that the title was removed from the website.

Another scam (at least I assume it was a scam) emerged last month. I received two almost identical e-mails saying, “I am Elaine, an author from China. I often read articles on your journal in my spare time and I also recommend your journal to my colleagues, because they have some suitable articles to your journal scope and in good quality. Can I recommend 3-4 articles to each issue of your journal? And we hope we can get a quick review. Is it possible to shorten it within a month? Also, after we received the review comments, hope you can give some help with our revision, so that our article can have more chances to published on your journal. We are willing to pay 1600 pounds per article to thanking for your help once our papers are accepted.” This is the first time I have been offered a bribe in this way. Sadly, the papers were unrelated to the scope of this journal and I was forced to decline. Other similar scams have followed, though, so I may yet be able to boost my pension fund.

These experiences are not unique, and they reflect the changing landscape in which we work. The growth of predatory open-access (OA) publishing and conference organization has generated much controversy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Beall). According to that website, Beall has said that “the quality of articles published in many OA journals is low, that peer review in many OA journals is negligible or non-existent, that public access to poor quality articles harms the public, and that the careers of young scholars who publish in poor quality OA journals are harmed” (Beall, 2013, 2017). The result was a barrage of lawsuits and a threat to his university position. Instead, he should be lauded and his efforts encouraged.

These activities are a threat to all of us and to the academic world in which we operate. We need to be vigilant to ensure that we are not deceived, as happened to a young colleague who e-mailed to tell me how proud she was that she had been invited to join the Editorial Board of a new journal. I had to tell her that I (and probably 100,000 others) had also received the same e-mail invitation.

Whether sports science or particularly sports nutrition is especially prone to these problems is hard to know. It seems though, from the diverse topics encompassed by some of these activities, that the problem is more widespread. It behooves us all to be vigilant and to alert young and less experienced colleagues to the dangers that lie in wait for the unwary.

References

  • Beall, J. (2013). The open-access movement is not really about open access. TripleC, 11(2), 589597. doi:10.31269/triplec.v11i2.525

  • Beall, J. (2017). What I learned from predatory publishers. Biochemia Medica, 27(2), 273279. doi:10.11613/BM.2017.029

  • Maughan, R.J., Burke, L.M., Dvorak, J., Larson-Meyer, D.E., Peeling, P., Phillips, S.M., … Engebretsen, L. (2018). IOC consensus statement: Dietary supplements and the high-performance athlete. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(2), 104125.

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  • Watson, P., & Maughan, R.J. (2014). Artifacts in plasma volume changes due to hematology analyzer derived hematocrit. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46, 5259. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a0537b

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Maughan is with the School of Medicine, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, United Kingdom.

Address author correspondence to Ron J. Maughan at ronmaughan@st-andrews.ac.uk.
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  • Beall, J. (2013). The open-access movement is not really about open access. TripleC, 11(2), 589597. doi:10.31269/triplec.v11i2.525

  • Beall, J. (2017). What I learned from predatory publishers. Biochemia Medica, 27(2), 273279. doi:10.11613/BM.2017.029

  • Maughan, R.J., Burke, L.M., Dvorak, J., Larson-Meyer, D.E., Peeling, P., Phillips, S.M., … Engebretsen, L. (2018). IOC consensus statement: Dietary supplements and the high-performance athlete. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(2), 104125.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Watson, P., & Maughan, R.J. (2014). Artifacts in plasma volume changes due to hematology analyzer derived hematocrit. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46, 5259. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a0537b

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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