In the December issue of “Tijdschrift voor Psychiatrie” Morrens reported on the winners of the prize for best paper in 2013 with a doctor in training in psychiatry as first author. A five-member jury rated a total of 15 papers on theoretics, originality, use of language, structure, and scientific, social and clinical relevancy. The 1250 euro first prize was awarded to the paper “An increase of compulsory admissions in Belgium and the Netherlands: an epidemiological exploration”. According to the jury, the authors demonstrated that the incidence of compulsory admissions per 100,000 inhabitants increased by 42% in Belgium and 25% in the Netherlands. These numbers were singled out eventhough a commentary by me, that was published in the journal’s April issue, pointed out that these percentages cannot be compared because they concern different time periods, 1999-2008 and 2002-2009 respectively. The authors confirmed that the increase in the period 2002-2008 was roughly equal in both countries, i.e. 21% and 20% (Tijdschrift voor Psychiatrie, 2013, 4: 304 - 306). But this was not the most important issue.
The jury also commented positively on the supplementary analyses of regional differences. However, my commentary clarified that these analyses were incorrect and unnecessary. In their reply the authors refer to the analyses as descriptive tests of significance (which is a contradictio in terminis), they wrongly fall back on the central limit theorem (which involves samples, but annual nationwide numbers of compulsory admissions are not samples and therefore there is no sampling error), and they even refer to Kenneth J. Rothman whereas this eminent epidemiologist argued in his “Epidemiology: an introduction” (2002): “In nearly all instances, there is no need for any test of statistical significance to be calculated, reported, or relied upon, and we are much better off without them.” (Read the full comments here.)
Apparently my commentary did not get through to the jury members as they awarded the first prize to “a very well written, clinical relevant, well structured paper”. And of course the journal’s chief editor, Prof. dr. Jan Spijker, was not inclined to publish my comment on the jury’s decision. In his email dated January 16th 2014 he stated that I had had my say and that there will always be differences of opinion regarding the quality of papers. Regrettably the editor failed to respond to my objection that the authors’ reply to a comment is the final word on the matter – but when they were wrong the first time round, should the reply not be checked even more thoroughly than the original manuscript?
Anyway, in my view, when a novelist in his debut roman makes spelling and style errors or an upcoming concert pianist at her premiere misses some notes, a first prize would be out of the question – irrespective of how relevant and well-structured the story’s theme or the interpretation of the composition would be. The basics should be in place, right? But apparently there are other standards in psychiatry. The next question is, how come? Maybe it is because a much too large part of the psychiatric profession still believes that some introductory level courses in statistics and epidemiology are enough to forgo methodological and statistical support. That would certainly not merit a prize.