A pointer to further articles by Brian Deer and others, highlighting an excellent comment by a reader of Respectful Insolence and brief thoughts.

The British Medical Journal–better known by it’s acronym, BMJ–continues to offer articles by Brian Deer on the long-running Wakefield saga, accompanied by several opinion pieces and editorials.

In particular Deer’s latest article points fingers at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School and the editorial board of Lancet as Harvey Marcovitch, Associate Editor at BMJ, relates with an edge of understated British humour:

Experience of cases reported to the Committee on Publication Ethics, a body founded by medical journal editors, leads to a conclusion that universities and other funding bodies differ in their response to reports from suspicious editors, reviewers, or readers. Some investigate, some retreat into a Trappist silence, and others are adept at carpet sweeping. Brian Deer’s report in the BMJ this week implies no shortage of shagpile in the Royal Free Hospital Medical School and the Lancet office.7

The articles at BMJ include (all open-access and linked to full-text web page):

Brian Deer’s latest feature (18th Jan):

Secrets of the MMR scare: The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news

An editorial (18th Jan):

Assuring research integrity in the wake of Wakefield (Opal et al.)

A Views & Reviews article (18th Jan):

Personal View : How campaigners and the media push bad science

And more commentary on 19th Jan:

Institutional and editorial misconduct in the MMR scare (by BMJ editor Fiona Godlee)

MMR and scientific fraud: Is research safe in their hands? (by BMJ associate editor Harvey Marcovitch)

While this story may have fallen from main-stream media attention, articles and comments continue on-line. Well-known blogger ‘Orac’, at Respectful Insolence continues to weigh in. (Despite strongly supporting Deer’s investigation into the Wakefield case, Orac differs in opinion with Deer on a few matters outside of Wakefield’s work itself, including ’Deer’s attack on Drs. Offit, Goldacre, and Fitzpatrick’.)

Rather than extensively quote or paraphrase these articles, I encourage interested readers to read the originals. I would like, though, to suggest that some of the commentary following Orac’s article is worth reading. In particular, this response by ‘Prometheus’ to Brian Deer’s hopefully innocent misunderstanding of another commenter’s remark deserves attention and I quote it below in full:

Elizabeth Reid (#17) comments:

“It doesn’t really matter from a scientific perspective that Wakefield was fraudulent rather than just wrong.”

to which Brian Deer (#18) retorts:

“Why would somebody shrug off research fraud? Why would somebody say that Wakefield’s ability to place fraudulent findings on a matter of child health into the Lancet, and keep it there for six years in the face of all the public and professional scrutiny that it received, “doesn’t really matter from a scientific perspective”?”

As I see it, there are two “non-overlapping magisteria” here: one is the realm of scientific validity or “truth”, if you like; the other is the realm of ethics.

In terms of validity or “truth”, Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper was known to be invalid (i.e. attempts to replicate his findings failed to show what he claimed) long before his data were shown to be fraudulent. His pathetic attempts to “vindicate” his research by claiming conspiracy and corruption on the part of his critics were laughed off by the “scientific community” because that’s exactly the wrong way to deal with scientific criticism. To many of us, his claims of persecution only showed that he had no faith in his results and was trying to “save face”.

As Mr. Deer pointed out in his articles, Dr. Wakefield was offered the time and resources to replicate his findings in a larger group of subjects, but he declined to do so. Had this been more widely known, it would have immediately raised suspicion of fraud in the “scientific community”. He was refusing to do what he should do to defend his findings and – as we only later found out – was not able to plead a lack of time or resources to do it. This would have been (and is) highly suggestive of conscious fraud.

In the ethical realm, I believe that any scientist would be appalled that Dr. Wakefield (or any scientist) deliberately falsified data. I can’t believe there would be a single exception. The only reason that science “works” is because we implicitly trust that researchers won’t commit fraud. We expect them to be wrong on occasion, but we expect that the errors and misinterpretations of data will be honest mistakes, not deliberate attempts to deceive. Being wrong doesn’t end a scientific career (unless you’re usually wrong), but a single act of fraud will bring a scientific career – even a long and productive one – to an immediate end.

Although I cannot speak for anyone but myself, I think that it’s probable that most scientists – at least, those who knew anything about Andy Wakefield prior to last week – considered Wakefield’s research a “dead issue” (and dead wrong) long ago. Thus, the recent revelations of fraud only serve to explain why his conclusions were wrong.

From a purely scientific perspective – from the perspective of increasing human knowledge about how the Universe works – Andy Wakefield’s work was dead long before we knew it was fraudulent. It isn’t any less scientifically relevant today than it was last year, since the “relevance scale” only goes down to zero.


Posted by: PrometheusJanuary 20, 2011 2:46 PM

Orac writes in response ’you nailed it better than I could think of a way to do.’

I’m highlighting this comment as it says well something raised in an earlier thread on my own blog by Alison: ’The whole study was flawed even before the evidence of outright fraud came to light.’ It’s worth to remember the fraud allegations are in addition the scientific conclusions, that they are separable things.

What the fraud revelations may do is get the anti-vaccine promoters to move on. The science community can handle the research issues, but the advocacy groups may need different motivations. (I like to think of Prometheus’ two magisteria here, with ethical issues being one few would want to bear, whatever their view on medical science.)

Some advocacy groups and their members are prone to rejecting scientific explanations–that’s part of what causes them to hold the views they do–but it’s perhaps harder to them to continue to support work that has been shown to be fraudulent.

Deer’s latest article, with it’s focus on the hospital and editorial boards, will raise more discussion on what academics, perhaps journal editors in particular, can do to prevent fraud.

It is a vexed question, as it is not something peer-reviewed is aimed at tackling. Peer review considers what data is presented to be presented in good faith. It doesn’t start by considering that the data might be ‘cooked’. My initial reactions were to be a bit of a pessimist and say that fraud is likely to always be caught well in arrears of the actual events, a few cases excepted.

Having read Opal and colleagues’ editorial Assuring research integrity in the wake of Wakefield I’m inclined to think that their thoughts might point that way. They offer examples of fraud being dealt with promptly, raising the question of why this was not true of Wakefield’s work. Their examples suggest a need for the open involvement (i.e. not sweeping things under carpets, shagpile or otherwise) of the institutions the research is conducted at and their staff.

It’s easy to dismiss this as an isolated incident–fraud with the sort of impact Wakefield’s work has had is rare–but more modest cases must occur and with these in mind it’s perhaps worth institutions taking note – ?

Other articles on Code for life:

Fact or fallacy, a survey of immunisation statements in the print media

Wakefield autism studies slammed as fraud by BMJ

Seeking science-y reading?

Book review – The Poisoner’s Handbook

In good health or not? — ’natural health’ advertising in newspapers, magazines

Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles