Medical journals retracting more research
August 12th, 2011
10:27 AM ET

Medical journals retracting more research

You may trust what your doctors tell you, but studies show they might be working off bad information.

Physicians and researchers share breakthroughs in medical science and treatments in journals.  Sometimes, however, these publications have to retract stories when they turn out to be wrong.  The number or retractions is going up according to a Wall Street Journal investigation conducted by Thomson Reuters.   It says there were only 22 retractions in 2001, but 339 last year – a fifteenfold increase.

John Budd’s research also shows an increase over time.  He’s a professor at the University of Missouri who spent years studying why publications are retracted.  He found that between 1997 and 2008, 47% of the articles were pulled because of  "misconduct or presumed misconduct."  Errors accounted for 25 %;  21% were taken down because the authors could not get the same results consistently.  The remaining 7% were unclassified.

Budd says errors such as an  accidentally contaminated tissue sample can be understandable - “it is just the way human beings are”  –but the misconduct and fraud "is harder to understand.”  Budd’s research suggests it’s “almost certain that some people are motivated by the need or desire to advance.”  Publication in a major medical journal can help a researcher’s career and lead to promotions or funding for additional research.

"A single paper in Lancet and you get your chair and you get your money. It's your passport to success," Richard Horton, editor of that journal, told the Wall Street Journal.

The number of retractions is small compared with the overall amount of research published, but it can have a big impact.

For example, a British study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998 reported that autism was linked to childhood vaccines.  The paper led to some parents not vaccinating their children for measles, mumps and rubella.  In January 2011 the journal BMJ retracted Wakefield's study, calling it an "elaborate fraud."  Fiona Godlee, BMJ's editor-in-chief, told CNN it was a “deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data.”  Wakefield has defended the research. 

In 2005, the journal Science published an article by South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk who claimed to have cloned human embryonic stem cells.  A year later the journal retracted it saying "data presented in both papers is fabricated."   Woo later admitted to faking his findings saying, "It is true that the research papers had fabricated data, and I will take full responsibility.  I acknowledge this and apologize."

When retractions happen journals publish notices, and on their websites many indicate in red type that the published report has been retracted.  Since the initial publication, however, other authors may have based their research or cited parts of their studies on the now retracted study.  Budd finds that most troubling.  His research shows only 5% of the citations for works retracted in 1999 acknowledged the cited work had been retracted.

There are several ways you can be an empowered patient and protect yourself against treatment based on error and misconduct in medical journals.
– Review your own research.  Budd recommends searching online libraries for research relevant to your health care that may be retracted.  The website RetractionWatch also monitors studies that have been pulled.

– Remember that new treatments are not always necessarily the best.

– Keep following up with your doctor to make sure any treatment that you are on is still the best.

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soundoff (269 Responses)
  1. Lincoln

    I know of one Princeton guy who made a career out of libelously misquoting research that was obsolete 40 years ago. Nobody cared to check his references. Once this stuff is published it stays out there a long long long time.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Jim

    So Mr. smarty pants, sensationalism at it's best, what percentage of treatments have been influence by retracted papers? I would be surprised if a single medical treatment can be traced to a retracted paper. Also works are published based on the merit of their data, so just the act of siting a retracted paper does not mean their data is null. It is one thing for an individual to draw conclusions based on a retracted paper but quite another to assume the medical community would be so flippant. Even when a sound paper changes the norm, such as the recent breast cancer testing age paper, doctors err on the side of caution.

    August 12, 2011 at 14:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • retractions are a big deal

      Jim, did you read the article at all? The 1998 paper supposedly linking autism with childhood vaccines has sparked a major trend in parents choosing not to vaccinate their children for all those years. Epidemics of measles and mumps have appeared throughout the USA and spread directly as a result of so many unvaccinated kids. That article (now retracted) spurred a major clusterf-ck among foolish parents choosing to not protect their kids. I'd say that's a huge impact.

      I know of a prostate cancer paper that many people in the field agree needs to be retracted because the results can't be repeated and it concludes the very opposite of what is now known about those conditions. I've had reviewers of failed grants cite that paper as why a proposal should NOT be funded when the proposed work is excellent and the paper cited is wrong. That is BAD! That stops good research from being funded. It's a big deal and it needs to be handled.

      August 13, 2011 at 13:41 | Report abuse |
    • arbiter

      Don't take Jim seriously. No potential employer would. If his resume has even half the grammatical and spelling errors as his comment, it would go directly to the circular file.

      August 16, 2011 at 08:16 | Report abuse |
  3. TI-90

    I love the suggestion-"review your own research." As a researcher I sometimes have trouble grasping some papers and I have been actively doing research for years. The author expects the public to be able to go though the literature and make conclusions on the science? And 339 papers retracted out of the estimated 1.4 million published is not bad in my book. And like Jim said retracted data does not even make it to the clinic becasue it has to be repeated by so many people. Bad data does influence research direction and control future hypothesises but it does not make future data bad, just may influence how it is interperted. But then again thats what a hypothesis is, an educated guess there is always the posibility that you think A =B and you show this. But A may = B only when C is present, but this does not mean the hypothesis is incorrect.

    August 12, 2011 at 15:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • David

      What do you expect from Elizabeth Cohen? Her primary goal is to create fear and distrust among patients.

      August 12, 2011 at 15:43 | Report abuse |
    • retractions are a big deal

      Tl-90, Thallium is number 81. Is Tl-90 a calculator?

      Remember that less scrupulous scientists will carefully study published data and when they base experiments around that expected set of outcomes, they may try to force their own data to fit the expected published data. I've seen it happen. I have also seen more junior people try to replicate published results and not be able to and lose the confidence of their mentor. That is VERY bad if the junior scientist did everything correctly and multiple times. Many people believe that if it's published, the paper is right and your data must be wrong. We must all keep an open mind and sometimes question whether the published values represent what their authors claim.

      August 13, 2011 at 13:50 | Report abuse |
    • Xondra

      The public is, of course, stupid. There isn't a single person outside of the medical community who can understand research or statements such as "this paper has been retracted because the author falsified data". Of course not. Everyone but some guy who got a diploma in medicine because he wanted the fame and the money is stupid, everyone but that money-hungry guy.

      August 14, 2011 at 17:26 | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    It wouldn't surprise me if most of those retracted papers are coming out of China. Their level of academic integrity is next to nil. I don't think they even have a word for plagiarism.

    August 12, 2011 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Kat

    "What percentage of treatments have been influence by retracted papers?" (sic)

    Wakefield's retracted paper has singlehandedly caused massive issues with vaccines in industrialized countries, created pockets of painful (and sometimes deadly) outbreaks of previously controlled childhood diseases, and sent autism research on a wild goose chase after vaccines for a decade. That's a lot of damage. Granted, it may be a rare case, but bad research can have a huge impact on the health of all of us, not just a single person.

    August 12, 2011 at 17:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Barney Bishop

    It is ironic that in writing an article/report that questions the integrity of scientific publications the authors themselves have cherry-picked their statistics and not properly analyzed or worse yet are intentionally misrepresenting their data by not putting the number of retracted publications in the proper context, being the total number of scientific publications for the years in question and trends in the growth in the number of publications over the same period. Also, the authors fail to give appropriate credit to the fact that the reported errors and falsifications were likely identified by other scientists in the field. Suggesting that scientific papers really have two or more layers of review... through peer review at the time of publication, and later by peers in the field trying to reproduce or build upon the published science. The authors also make me question their familiarity with scientific writing when the refer to scientific papers and "articles".

    This smacks of a poorly researched and biased article intended to cause fear and distrust of scientific research in order to sell Ms Cohen's book. If only "articles" like these were peer reviewed, perhaps they would be more accurate and honest in their analysis.

    August 12, 2011 at 21:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. thomas englemuff

    So, E cohen has 0 published scientific papers and she has a B.A. in History so just wondering how she is quaified to make all of these terribly wrong conclusions...back to history cohen, back to history

    August 12, 2011 at 21:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. larry

    The medical journals have the best studies money can buy. If the funding for the study depends on getting the right answer then you are dealing with propaganda, not science. If there was an advisory board that would do blind funding for research the results would carry more weight. That is the people doing the research study would not know who funded it and would not know the answers they are expected to find. If a funding organization is not willing to submit their project to such requirements they are announcing that they only want a predetermined result and are not really interested in science. The problem is that if funding organizations were exposed to valid research many research groups wold be out of business overnight.

    August 14, 2011 at 16:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Scott

    Doctors and patients shouldn't be making medical decisions based on single studies– ever.

    Scientific research is supposed to slowly guide medicine towards better patient care... it's not meant to direct specialties on a month-by-month basis. If your doctor is making major deviations from standards of care (e.g, by recommending your child not be vaccinated) you have bigger problems than worrying about whether or not the study he's citing is valid. No scientific paper is entirely true, and no paper ever makes the final remark on a subject. It takes years of peer-reviewed research to produce long-term, major changes in theories and how we care for patients. It really shouldn't matter if certain papers are retracted or not because no research or policy should ever be constructed off a single study.

    Our failure as a country to grasp this isn't because the public is stupid, it's because scientists are lousy communicators, reporters are scientifically illiterate, and because neither the public nor the media seems to understand that physicians are NOT scientists... They aren't trained to interpret data, studies or conduct research; they have a 4 year degree largely dedicated to honing technical skills, which differs sharply from a graduate education where the focus is on conducting and interpreting research properly and appropriately.

    August 14, 2011 at 19:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Trish Groves

    Just a quick note to point out that the paper discussed in the above blog was published in (and this year retracted by) the Lancet:
    Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, Linnell, Casson DM, Malik M, et al. Ileal lymphoid nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children [retracted]. Lancet1998;351:637-41.

    The BMJ is a separate medical journal which published an investigation into the integrity of the Wakefiled et al study and publications.

    (I'm deputy editor, BMJ)

    August 15, 2011 at 01:53 | Report abuse | Reply
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