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Andrew Wakefield tops the “Retraction Epidemic”

Posted Oct 05 2012 12:53pm

We recently discussed a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications . A reader sent a copy to me and there are a couple of interesting points (OK, there are a number of interesting points, but a couple specific to the autism communities).

First, consider the abstract:

A detailed review of all 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed as retracted on May 3, 2012 revealed that only 21.3%of retractionswere attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased ∼10-fold since 1975. Retractions exhibit distinctive temporal and geographic patterns that may reveal underlying causes

Yes, the “retraction epidemic”. My guess is the use of “epidemic” here will rankle one or more of Mr. Wakefield’s supporters.

One point that I discussed previously was that Mr. Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper tops the list as the most cited retracted paper. The list of top cited retracted papers is shown in this figure ( Click to enlarge ):

The figure lists the reasons for retraction. The reason for Mr. Wakefield’s paper? Fraud.

As many readers will recall, Mr. Wakefield sued the BMJ and Brian Deer and editor Fiona Godlee for defamation for calling Mr. Wakefield’s paper fraudulent. Which begs the question: how can one call something defamatory when it is a generally accepted fact within the research community?

At present Mr. Wakefield is appealing the decision that stated he doesn’t have the standing to sue in Texas. As always in this case, it isn’t enough to show that his reputation is poor. He has to show that someone other than himself is at fault for his poor reputation. And that is a tough hurdle to cross.

By Matt Carey

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