The Wakefield-Autism BMJ editorial revisited

By Siouxsie Wiles 09/01/2011 11

Fellow SciBlogger Grant Jacobs has written an excellent post on the BMJ’s recent editorial ‘Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent’. I’d like to add a few points.

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.

11 Responses to “The Wakefield-Autism BMJ editorial revisited”

  • Hi Siouxsie,

    There is certainly more to the “Wakefield saga”! I’ll be interested to see your take on it. I’ve briefly pointed to another paper of Wakefield’s that was withdrawn (as opposed to retracted): Another Wakefield paper pulled?.

    There are so many twists and turns, I imagine Deer (or someone else) must be working on a book, surely. (It seems Wakefield already has his own out… It was noticeable in one of the CNN interviews that the interviewer kept trying to quite directly head of Wakefield touting his book. Something to the effect that if the papers was lies, so would the book be.)

    I agree it’d be interesting to read the BMJ reviewers’ comments, but I suppose BMJ would not want to set a precedent of reviewer’s remarks being publicised on a routine basis, unless that’s a direction they wish to take the journal. (I have heard some calls for this sort of thing in the wider sphere of discussions on peer review. Some medical journals do offer editorial/review comments directly in the journal for that matter. I’ve no idea what’s the norm with BMJ.)

  • Siouxie, why would anyone need to ‘peer review’ a journalist’s article? They are paid to provide a product/ story. Brian Deer has NO medical qualifications whatsoever- he is a free lance journalist. He does not work alone, though. This whole use of scientific research jargon (peer review, findings) to make his report some kind of scientific dissertation is misleading.

    It’s a journalistic report comissioned for a medical journal, not a scientific research project approved for publication in medical journal.

    Here is some information on Deer’s history of investigative journalism and his relationships with those supporting his work since 2004:

  • No different to reputable newspapers using fact-checkers wouldn’t you think? Just a thought.

    (You might view fact-checking is in effect an internal peer-review of sorts done by newspapers on contributions.)

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  • Leave your comment here…I think the most interesting thing was how few people actually read the original Wakefield Lancet article. The editor was indeed concerned that the story would be spun and insisted that the sentence “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described” was included in the finally published version. What happened next was at the Royal Free press conference Wakefield completely distorted the facts – including those of his own published work. Journalists and editors being largely indifferent to scientific accuracy never bothered to actually read the Lancet paper. The Royal Free was more concerned that they were in a good news story rather than whether it was true, and the editor of the Lancet tried to hold his own press conference but the press merely repeated the Wakefield story with the added badge “controversial”. The recent Simon Singh libel case shows that there is no legal defence of simply being right – science is just opinion it seems -even though he was eventually victorious the judgement was based on an absence of malice ruling rather than an actual examination of the facts