Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a mysterious condition. Its cause, diagnosis, even its name have long been sources of controversy, and it appears that this controversy has recently reached new heights, with some individuals issuing a series of threats to a subset of researchers in the field, as reported in a recent article in the Observer.
This particular episode of the conflict involves a paper published in PLoS ONE in Jan. 2010, so we feel at this point it is appropriate for us to comment and express our disapproval of this behavior.
The PLoS ONE study was the first response to an Oct. 2009 article in the journal Science that reported a correlation between CFS and a virus called XMRV. Contrary to the original finding, the PLoS ONE paper reported no evidence of XMRV in CFS patients, and a number of similar studies followed on its heels (see examples here and here), prompting Science to issue an expression of concern.
These later reports generated a very negative response from some individuals at the time of publication – a number of comments on the PLoS ONE paper had to be removed from the website because of inappropriate content – and it appears that the situation has not improved. According to the Observer article, “the militants are now considered to be as dangerous and uncompromising as animal rights extremists.” The article goes on to describe various instances of physical and verbal abuses, including daily death threats addressed to the lead author of the PLoS ONE paper, Professor Myra McClure.
As the debate about CFS continues, we at PLoS would like to take the opportunity to express support for our authors and for their right, and of course everyone else’s right, to enjoy the freedom to debate and investigate scientific topics openly, constructively, and without fear. This situation has emphasized, to us, the importance of civilized discourse in these matters. Those who threaten researchers’ safety above all do themselves a major disservice by dissuading other researchers from entering the field, chasing away the very people who may be able to help them. It is bad both for science and for patients, and should absolutely not be tolerated.