I was recently told that the BMJ originally rejected Wakefield’s paper. I wonder if they sent it out for peer review? * If so, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the reviewers said? And why didn’t the editor of the BMJ at the time make the criticisms known when it was clear just how damaging the article was turning out to be? The journalist Brian Deer has maintained a website summarising his investigations into Wakefield and the MMR debacle. The fact that the BMJ has commissioned Deer to write a series of articles summarising his findings is good news. Now Deer’s findings appear in the scientific** literature and on databases such as PubMed. It almost feels like the medical establishment are attempting to legitimise his findings.
The editorial also makes an important point about co-authors of publications. It is common (at least in biology) to have many authors on a paper and you often wonder how involved some of them where. I’ve certainly had experience of people being on my papers for political reasons, rather than because they actually contributed anything. Indeed, I even had one article that someone who shall remain nameless tried to stop me from writing and then insisted on being on. It is one of the papers I am most proud of and he never even read it. It does seem the journals are tightening up on this, but it is still an area open to abuse. For papers submitted to PLoS journals, the corresponding author has to tick a series of boxes to indicate which author did what, from contributing materials, to designing and performing the experiments, to writing the paper. Finally, all authors have to have read the final submitted paper. As I say, still open to abuse, but does give a record which is published with the paper of who is responsible for what.
The BMJ editorial leaves one last parting shot:
‘What of Wakefield’s other publications? In light of this new information their veracity must be questioned. Past experience tells us that research misconduct is rarely isolated behaviour’
What of his other work? Indeed, the Lancet paper was just the first in a series a papers attempting to link autism with measles. That deserves a post all of it’s own so watch this space.
* Some journals make a decision to reject a paper without even sending for peer review, for example, if it is blatantly obvious that there is something wrong with it, or if it doesn’t meet the journal’s criteria for publication.
**I’ve italicised this because I’ve never really been sure whether journals like the Lancet and the BMJ are true scientific journals. I’ve always thought of them as a place doctors write up interesting case studies, which is what the retracted Lancet paper was (or rather, would have been, had it not been fraudulent). It’s interesting that this is now what Wakefield is claiming in defense.