Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The obsolescence of paper journals and conferences

I was reading an editorial article the other day, entitled "A word to the wise about ketamine" by Alan Schatzberg (American Journal of Psychiatry, March 1, 2014).  

The article is a brief opinion piece cautioning psychiatrists about the use of ketamine as an antidepressant.  It includes such statements as this:
Without more data on what ketamine can do clinically, except to produce brief euphoriant effects after acute administration, and knowing it can be a drug of abuse, it is difficult to argue that patients should receive an acute trial of ketamine for refractory depression.
Of course, this is an important opinion, a valid point of debate!  If something like ketamine is indeed simply giving people a momentary high, then leading them into a dark pathway of addiction, then we need to acknowledge this risk and sound the warning!

The problem I have with this editorial is the nature of the debate that can take place in response to it.
Each statement in the editorial can be challenged in quite an engaging debate, for example:

 -benzodiazepines, antihistamines, opiates, and even antipsychotics such as Seroquel, are drugs of abuse as well, yet they have well-established medical benefits in many instances, independent of their "brief euphoriant effects."

-severe refractory depression which has not improved with multiple conventional treatments is a devastating condition; it does not seem "difficult to argue" at all, in favour of a simple agent administered weekly, in an office setting, with a drug level of zero shortly after the patient leaves the clinic, and which can produce profound relief and improved function lasting for a week at a time in a significant number of people.

-medications with potentially dangerous long-term side-effects, including lithium and antipsychotics, are routinely prescribed for refractory depression, often one after the other, even when previous similar trials have not helped at all!  An argument could be made that it should be time to stop this repetitive medication loading, after a dozen or more previous similar trials have done nothing except cause side effects!   It is interesting to consider the adverse consequences, psychologically and medically, of repeated ineffective psychotropic medication trials. 

Now, with this response I do not claim that ketamine is some kind of miracle drug.  I think it is promising, and deserves careful consideration.  It is entirely possible (probable, even) that there are risks associated with it that are not well-enough appreciated.  But in a refractory depressed population, the risks of continued symptoms are devastating!

I also do not mean to put down the value of other conventional medical therapies.  Lithium or antipsychotics or multiple conventional antidepressants may indeed be important, valuable, life-saving treatments, and I think we must keep an open mind about trying them, especially if they have not yet been tried in particular patients.  

Back to my main point, though, which is a process-related point:

-editorial writers in a major journal carry a lot of persuasive weight, which is certainly enhanced further by the editor's long list of publications and awards.   But when it comes to making decisions, it is ineffective to simply hear one person's opinion, even if that person is the leading expert in the world!  --especially, I might add, when this opinion comes from a position of obvious bias (for example, towards theoretical conservatism, lack of personal experience with the specific subject matter,  or "expert" status which is based on expertise in other subject areas than the issue at hand).   Every opinion should be heard, of course!  But in order for a productive understanding of an issue to take place, there needs to be debate!

In a journal such as The American Journal of Psychiatry one could certainly engage in a debate, for example by writing a letter in response to an article.  But, first of all, there is a huge time lag involved!  It could be a month or more before any response would be seen.  Even if the response was published, it would be located in the letter section, rather than in the prominent editorial section.  And imagine having a debate with someone professionally, but in a framework in which you could only exchange comments once per month!  I think the quality of the debate would suffer!  And I suspect many observers of such a debate would lose interest! 

We live in an era where it is possible to engage in an instantaneous debate online.  We can do this on most news websites.   Of course, on news sites, etc. a lot of the public commentary features quite extreme opinions, trolling, etc.  But in a professional on-line publication it would be quite easy to limit comments or discussion only to members of the psychiatric community.

It seems a puzzling and unnecessary relic at this point to observe an editorial of this sort, an opinion piece which has a great deal of room for discussion, but where no discussion can take place in a timely manner.  

There are several other reasons why paper journals in the sciences are obsolete:  first, they are a waste of paper!  Second, many advanced techniques of data presentation (for example, see Hans Rosling's work with health statistics) require a computer to be visualized.  A static 2-dimensional graph or photograph on paper conveys only a tiny fraction of the information which could be easily displayed online.  Similarly, I believe the entire data set should always be provided for any published study, so that the reader can conduct an independent analysis of the data.  This further reduces the possibility of bias in presentation, and conversely increases the possibility that another person could see something in the raw data that was missed by the authors!  Third, if one reads scientific papers online, one can instantly look at hyperlinked references to get a much richer and deeper understanding of the paper (including the paper's strengths and weaknesses). 

For many of the same reasons, I think lectures at professional conferences and meetings are obsolete as well, as least in their role as educational loci!  A professional conference may be a good place for social connections, networking, and tourism, or perhaps to attend a workshop to acquire a new hands-on skill, but it is wildly inefficient as a primary source of didactic education!  This is true for many of the same reasons described above for journals:  lectures are much more likely to be condensed opinion pieces on the part of the lecturer, usually without a lot of room for rich intellectual debate.   And another problem with conferences, in terms of persuasion and bias, is that they are designed to be luxurious!  If the experience of learning a possibly controversial or an outdated dogmatic idea takes place during a time which is simultaneously considered a vacation, in fancy hotels, with gourmet meals, in an exotic location, there is a much higher risk of biased persuasion taking place.   Didactic education does not require physical travel, it requires intellectual travel!