Andrew Wakefield tops the “Retraction Epidemic”

5 Oct

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

14 Responses to “Andrew Wakefield tops the “Retraction Epidemic””

  1. Science Mom October 5, 2012 at 19:54 #

    Finally the scientific community recognises him as a world leader in his field. He and his devoted supporters have got to feel vindicated.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) October 5, 2012 at 21:12 #

      Wakefield is the public face of science fraud.

      Who has ever heard of the other people on the list? I’ve heard of Schon, but that’s roughly my field.

    • Lara Lohne October 8, 2012 at 03:57 #

      LOL! Nice one Science Mom.

  2. Lawrence October 5, 2012 at 21:44 #

    @Sullivan – ironic that one of the very studies that people like Mercola trot out to blast Modern Medicine and Research lists Andrew Wakefield as #1 in Fraud.

  3. mikemawords October 6, 2012 at 13:34 #

    Highest citing for Wakefield’s Fraud. He must be so proud. Justice took too long but I am glad of it getting here at all.

    The chart shows the number of cites. There must also be a record of who cited the fraud and in support of what. Are those paper’s authors notified when their citing is affected? Are there obligations to note the fraud after the fact?

    • StrangerInAStrangeLand October 11, 2012 at 11:09 #

      Scientific literature databases, like Web of Science for example, show not only the number of citations a paper got but also which papers cite it. You would then have to go to all those papers directly though and read in which context it was cited; there is no direct way to see if they are “pro or anti” from the database.

      And the problem of relying on and citing a paper that has been corrected or was even retracted is always there, as there is no notification to authors who cited it. Journals mark papers that have changed in some way after publication online with a retraction or correction notice but scientists have to find those by themselves which is not always easy. If it is a high profile case like the Wakefield fraud or if the paper is spot on in your scientific field then you will propable know about the correction/retraction as a scientist, but otherwise it is very difficult to find out that something you read and relied on while doing your research was then questioned years later. (Times between starting your research or even handing in your manuscript for publication until it finally comes out are often loooong.)

      If you or anyone else is interested in the topic of retraction of scientific papers, all the whats, whys and how it is (or should be) done are shown and discussed on the excellent website Retraction Watch (

    • mikemawords October 11, 2012 at 13:36 #

      Thanks for the informative response. I will peruse retractionwatch when time permits. It occurs to me though that in an electronic world, with databases for nearly everything, an electronic notification could be tied to the printing or viewing font of the citing page. Red & strikethrough if retracted, blue if corrected, green if supported by subsequent research, otherwise no modifier. Evaluated in reverse order of course.

      All it would require (aside from general buy-in) would be an ISBN-like number assigned for all papers, a database for those numbers along with some data (authors. field, topic, retraction/correction status, etc). Then any electronic delivery would check the data and modify the cites. At the very least the paper’s number could be a link to the citing status.

      I work with databases so this seems easy and interesting. Sorry for wandering and dreaming so far off topic.

      • StrangerInAStrangeLand October 12, 2012 at 10:49 #

        The things you suggested, e.g. electronic marking of retracted papers, ISBM-like number (called digital object identifier, DOI), etc. exist. The technical side is less of a problem, it´s more a question of attitude. Publishers don´t like to talk about / “show off” their retractions because by this they admit that they made a mistake accepting a paper. And of course different publishers see their responsibility and necessity of informing about retractions, meaning how much effort they have to put into this, differently.

        Also, when you read and used a paper for your research, you might not look it up on the web ever again, so how do you get the information that it was retracted until it is too late and you cite it in your own paper or worse, base a long and expensive experiment on it?

        But now I promise I will let this topic (one of my pets as you might have guessed) rest; sorry for being slightly off-topic here.

  4. livsparents October 6, 2012 at 20:56 #

    What’s really a crime is that Scott Reubens is not on that list. But I guess the technicality that he had dozens of articles, each of which singly may not have been cited. He’s still the Madoff of science fraud…way way above little Andy…

  5. Science Mom October 6, 2012 at 23:03 #

    You’re right livsparents; he’s not even mentioned in the study. One of the metrics they reported was “most cited retracted study” which Andy topped the list. I think that they should have had authors with the most retracted studies too as there are some notable authors with most or all of their publications retracted.

  6. David N. Brown October 8, 2012 at 19:25 #

    The “common sense” appraisal of this is that what we are looking at is, like the “autism epidemic”, mostly a matter of better detection and reporting. A factor that would be worth particular attention is changes in the “ettiquette” of the scientific community. In those terms, the paper discussed above is itself quite striking, because it openly presents “fraud” as a reason for retraction, where traditionally (as evident as recently as the Wakefield affair) scientists have tended to go to great lengths to avoid directing such bluntly accusatory language against their peers. Unfortunately, this would raise the question whether a paper like this should not itself be considered a potentially partisan artucact of the scientific subculture.

    David N. Brown
    Mesa, Arizona

  7. jonas November 23, 2012 at 15:13 #

    Hwang’s paper retracted for error???? Can’t believe


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