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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