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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 30th November 2011

I realise that ‘The labourer is worthy of his reward’, to quote 1 Timothy Chapter 5 verse 18 of the King James bible, but I’m not sure that determining the size of that reward is straightforward, especially when you have to take into account all the other people who take a share of it.

I’ve been having a further look at some of the references cited by the 1999 French paper I mentioned on Monday 28th. And that has brought me up against some pretty high paywalls.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Aconitum napellus, monkshood

I started by looking at more of the references in the section on Aconitum napellus, monkshood. I was particularly interested in a number of papers which, from the abstracts, were clearly about fatalities arising from the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remedies made from various species of plant in the Aconitum genus.

Poisonings from TCM are of interest to me because of the situation with the use of extracts from plants of the Aristolochia genus that I’ve blogged about recently and in June. What I wanted to know about the Aconitum deaths was whether these were attributed to mistakes in making up the remedy or use of the wrong plant (the similarity in Chinese names has been given as one reason for remedies including aristolochic acid being available) or a failure by TCM practitioners to acknowledge the danger.

Unfortunately, when I went looking for the full papers I found that I would have to pay around £40 to see each one. Now, I have paid that sort of money in the past. I wrote my book ‘Is That Cat Dead?’ before the Royal Society made its Philosophical Transactions freely available and, in order to get the fullest possible information on Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, I did purchase short-term access to three articles at £27 each. But I really didn’t think I could justify paying a larger sum just to confirm what I already know; that TCM can produce some tragic results.

One of the items I tracked down turned out to be a letter to the Lancet in 1993. Now, letters to the editor are much shorter than a full paper and don’t have the benefit of peer review so I wouldn’t have expected to be asked to pay the same as for a full paper, and I wasn’t. But, it was expected that people would be willing to pay around £20 just to see a, maybe, 400 word letter.

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

As I began, I accept that people who create original works are entitled to expect to be rewarded for that work but I wonder how many people are prepared to pay these sorts of sums to the journals concerned. And, of course, I wonder how much of that payment finds its way back to the original authors to support their future work.

There are costs associated with making documents available online but, if hardly anyone is willing to pay the sums requested then those costs are not being recovered, anyway. I can only assume that the Royal Society didn’t sacrifice a huge income stream when it decided to lift the paywall on its Philosophical Transactions.

I should explain why I see this as more of a problem than my personal reluctance to spend a lot of money on subscriptions or buying lots of access to individual items. There is a real problem about people understanding science and it persists in spite of people like Ben Goldacre with his Guardian column ‘Bad Science’ and the book of the same name. Or Brian Cox and Robin Ince with the BBC Radio 4 series ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’.

It sometimes seems as though people fall into one of two groups; those who believe nothing science says and those who believe everything they are told about science without question.

The first group includes those who focus on the inherent doubt in scientific results. All science is based on what we know now and what we conclude that means but it always accepts that a new discovery could mean that ‘the rules’ have to be changed. But some people take the sensible notion that science doesn’t know everything and turn that into the conclusion that science knows nothing.

The second group is made up of those who truly believe that every scientific discovery is a ‘major breakthrough’ and that, like the Daily Mail, everything either causes or cures cancer. We know how strong the opinions of this group can be when we look at the continuing prevalence of the idea that coffee is a diuretic 22nd Oct even though that discovery was based on a trial involving only three people.

Only by allowing people to get as close as possible to the scientists who actually conducted the research or made the study can we hope to increase the understanding of science. Maybe if more people could read about how other people died after using substances that were supposed to cure them, they might not be so eager to listen to the siren voices suggesting that TCM is somehow more natural and better than western medicine.