Ethical Misconduct Is Main Reason for Retracted Autism Studies
Ethical misconduct was the main reason autism studies were retracted, according to the authors of a recently published paper.1
Researchers analyzed 25 retracted articles and examined key characteristics of those papers — the length of time between publication and retraction. The time frame between the study’s publication and retraction ranged from two to 144 months. In 19 cases, journals printed retraction notices. In six cases, no notice was published.
“There have been quite a few retractions of studies in the past few years as it has become easier to automatically scan for faulty or manipulated data,” says Jeremy M. Veenstra-Vanderweele, MD, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian.
One of the more common findings that leads to retractions is protein immunoblots that were duplicated or manipulated. “There is a concern across science that the pressure to publish can lead a small group of scientists to commit fraud rather than pursue the truth. Overall, this remains a fairly uncommon occurrence, but any fraud is disturbing,” Veenstra-Vanderweele says. The retractions mostly involved molecular or behavioral studies. “I can’t think of an example of a major randomized trial in autism that was retracted,” Veenstra-Vanderweele adds.
With randomized, double-blind trials, investigators do not know which group (active treatment or placebo) the participant is in until after the trial is completed. This makes it difficult for someone to consciously or unconsciously influence the results. “Many of us in the autism research community are sensitized to fraudulent research,” Veenstra-Vanderweele shares.
This is due to the now decades-old history of a researcher’s substantial conflict of interest that was not disclosed in papers that purported to connect vaccines with autism.2 There were additional problems with misrepresented data. The fraudulent publications and press coverage led to many children not receiving proper vaccines. “Thankfully, the more recent examples of retracted papers have not had such a profound influence on the field,” Veenstra-Vanderweele says.
Before researchers become convinced of a novel finding, it should be supported by more than one study from more than one group, according to Veenstra-Vanderweele. This is particularly important when a new treatment is undergoing testing. “Replication is one of the most important things in science in general,” Veenstra-Vanderweele asserts. “Replication is also the best antidote to fraudulent science.”
1. Charbonneau DH, Ketcheson LR. Retracted publications in autism research are mostly concerned with ethical misconduct. Health Info Libr J 2023; Apr 19. doi: 10.1111/hir.12482.
2. Flaherty DK. The vaccine-autism connection: A public health crisis caused by unethical medical practices and fraudulent science. Ann Pharmacother 2011;45:1302-1304.
There have been quite a few retractions of studies in the past few years as it has become easier to automatically scan for faulty or manipulated data. There is a concern the pressure to publish can lead a small group of scientists to commit fraud rather than pursue the truth. Overall, this remains a fairly uncommon occurrence, but any fraud is disturbing.
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