the politics of scientific publishing

The last time I wrote about autism and vaccines, I presumed that there was legitimate scientific debate and their relationship. An article in the recent issue of Scientific American shows that the scientific data never actually was: the article that laid the empirical claim for vaccines causing autism was recently retracted.

Impact Factor: Can a Scientific Retraction Change Public Opinion?

The case series report by Andrew Wakefield (then of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Study Group at the Royal Free Hospital in London) and 12 co-authors published February 28, 1998, in the well-regarded U.K. medical journal The Lancet described gastrointestinal problems in children with developmental regression—and suggested a possible link with inoculation of the combination measles–mumps–rubella (MMR) vaccine, which had preceded the symptoms in the children. What appeared, on its surface, to be a descriptive paper about developmental disorders and diarrhea ended up becoming a flash point in the autism community and sparked a decline in childhood vaccination rates—and possibly an uptick in outbreaks of vaccinal diseases.

On February 2, 2010, the editors of The Lancet retracted the paper because the 12 children in the research were not recruited as described by the authors, and the work had apparently not been approved by an ethics committee.

The retraction came as little surprise to many observers of the vaccine–autism debate. Nevertheless, the paper’s influence on the broader public may last for awhile, despite a growing body of contrary evidence (as well as many of the co-authors having stepped away from the indications). A survey conducted in 2009, published online March 1, 2010 in Pediatrics, found that about a quarter of the 1,552 parents surveyed thought that vaccines can cause autism in some children. And 12 percent of parents had declined at least one recommended vaccine for their children.

“It’s hard to un-ring the bell,” says Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It’s very hard to un-scare people once you’ve scared them.”

The point of the article is not that anti-vaccine autism activism is founded on shaky science, but rather that there seems to be an unsettling number of retractions taking place in scientific journals these days. All too often what sticks in people’s minds is the bad news that confirms what they want to believe: ecstacy causes brain damage (drug use is immoral), vaccines cause autism (there is a known cause and we can blame the biotech industry).

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to me that it took 12 years for the paper to get retracted, which amounts to 12 years of activism–including 12 years of many families opting not to vaccinate children for measles. This points to the seriousness of re-evaluating the system of peer review in our country. On the one hand there is scant professional incentive (or government funding available) to reproduce studies to prove their validity, while on the other scientific studies are increasingly becoming the basis for activism around issues of health and the environment. Our scientific publishing and funding institutions, therefore, may really have a social duty to reconsider the criteria for scientific publication, especially when it comes to such morally charged issues as drug safety and children’s health.

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One thought on “the politics of scientific publishing

  1. Even prior to retraction, it’s kind of amazing that the whole controversy was based on a single paper with only 12 subjects. I haven’t seen the paper, but how could they show the link was significant? Besides, it must have been a retrospective design if they were studying only 12 children with developmental regression, which actually can’t tell you anything about the rates even if you do show there is a link.

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