Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Study linking vaccines to autism pulled following heavy criticism

with 23 comments

Frontiers in Public HealthA study linking vaccines to autism and other neurological problems has been removed by a Frontiers journal after receiving heavy criticism since it was accepted last week. 

The abstract — published online in Frontiers in Public Health after being accepted November 21 — reported findings from anonymous online questionnaires completed by 415 mothers of home-schooled children 6-12 years old. Nearly 40 percent of children had not been vaccinated, and those that had were three times more likely to be diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, the study found.

After receiving criticism on Twitter, Frontiers released a public statement, noting that the study was only “provisionally accepted but not published,” and is being re-reviewed. When asked for a comment, a Frontiers spokesperson referred us to the statement.

A cached version of the abstract of “Vaccination and Health Outcomes: A Survey of 6- to 12-year-old Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Children based on Mothers’ Reports,” is still available online.

According to the abstract’s results:

A total of 415 mothers provided data on 666 children, of which 261 (39%) were unvaccinated. Vaccinated children were significantly less likely than the unvaccinated to have been diagnosed with chickenpox and pertussis, but significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with pneumonia, otitis media, allergies and NDDs (defined as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and/or a learning disability).

It concludes:

In this study based on mothers’ reports, the vaccinated had a higher rate of allergies and NDD than the unvaccinated. Vaccination, but not preterm birth, remained significantly associated with NDD after controlling for other factors. However, preterm birth combined with vaccination was associated with an apparent synergistic increase in the odds of NDD. Further research involving larger, independent samples is needed to verify and understand these unexpected findings in order to optimize the impact of vaccines on children’s health.

The findings quickly amassed heavy criticism on Twitter:

Even the publisher’s response to the criticism didn’t entirely go over well:

Twitter users also noted that the study appears to have asked for crowdsourced funding via the Age of Autism online newspaper. A user also linked to a site that posted a letter first author Anthony Mawson, a visiting professor at Jackson State University, allegedly wrote in support of the now-discredited work of notorious anti-vaccine researcher Andrew Wakefield.

In 2011, Mawson filed a lawsuit against the Mississippi State Department of Health, alleging that the state health officer interfered with his then-position at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (resulting in his contract not getting renewed) after he advocated the need for more studies on vaccine safety. In 2012, the suit was dismissed.

The paper was peer-reviewed by Linda Mullin Elkins, a chiropractor at Life University, and Kelly Hsieh from the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was edited by Amit Agrawal at Gandhi Medical College in India.

In July, the same Frontiers journal retracted a study on chemtrails, an age-old conspiracy theory about the dangers of cloud trails released by jet planes.

Earlier this month, another Frontiers journal retracted a paper about predicting whether people are dead or alive by looking at their photographs.

Frontiers isn’t the first publisher to pull a paper linking vaccines to problems following heavy criticism — in February, Vaccine temporarily removed — then soon retracted — a paper linking the vaccine for Human papillomavirus to behavioral problems in mice; a modified version of the paper was later republished

In 2015, Jeffrey Beall added Frontiers to his list of “potential, possible, or probable predatory” scholarly publishers, a move that prompted some debate among academics about whether it merited such a designation.

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Comments
  • Dorit Reiss November 28, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    I really would like to see an explanation of why they accepted a study that appears based on an anonymous internet survey of a biased population, and why one of the reviewers is a chiropractor.

  • JoAnna Bisson November 28, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    It certainly appears to me that the study was designed to prove a biased position – reason enough not to take it seriously. That is not the way science is done.

  • herr doktor bimler November 28, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    It certainly appears to me that the study was designed to prove a biased position

    Four years ago, Orac looked at the proposed study, and the potential sources of funding, and wrote the whole thing off in advance as hopelessly agenda-driven:
    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/11/29/fundraising-for-antivaccine-research/

  • Cory Johnston November 28, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    It seems like the Frontiers journal has a bit of a history with publishing poor work. It may get to the point, if it hasn’t already, that they don’t have any credibility left.

  • herr doktor bimler November 28, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    The restriction of recruitment to four specific states (Oregon, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana) is puzzling.* Are they particularly receptive to home-schooling? Sylvie Coyaud points out that the range of public health investment — from Oregon to Mississippi and Louisiana — introduces any number of potential confounding variables.
    http://ocasapiens-dweb.blogautore.repubblica.it/2016/11/28/closed-access/

    alleging that the state health officer interfered with his then-position at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (resulting in his contract not getting renewed) after he advocated the need for more studies on vaccine safety.

    Commenter Narad looked at the legal filings back in 2012 and reported that the reasons for Mawson leaving UMMC were murky, with an administrative leave in Nov. 2010, connected somehow to Mawson’s theory that Vitamin-A overdose is the cause of much illness.
    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/11/29/fundraising-for-antivaccine-research/#comment-220185
    —————————————————————
    * Of course anyone could take part in the survey if they were willing to lie on the Internet, which is always a possibility when an active and vocal anti-vaccine lobby group are informed about the project in the course of raising the money to conduct it.

    • James Lyons-Weiler November 29, 2016 at 12:16 am

      But remember just identifying a POTENTIAL confounding variable does not prove it was a problem. If so, for all studies, you just have to look at enough gene or protein expression patterns to find one.

  • Narad November 28, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Commenter Narad looked at the legal filings back in 2012

    Boy, that was really sloppy. I’ve just tried to flesh out the dockets for both cases, but either my RECAP is broken, or archive.org is slower than it used to be, or something. These are the two cases (as of this writing, each has one downloadable go-away document):

    Mawson v. University of Mississippi Medical Center

    Mawson v. Mississippi State Department of Health

    • Narad November 28, 2016 at 8:08 pm

      OK, that worked. I’ve tried to add document 1 and the state-court pleadings to this one, but they came as a zip file, so I don’t know whether it’s going to parse. Anyway, checking what else is available from Mississippi proper is left as an exercise for the reader.

    • Conrad Seitz MD November 29, 2016 at 5:39 pm

      OK, both cases were dismissed with prejudice in response to a request for summary judgement. That’s about all the details available in these two nice clear documents.
      It would be nice to see such things as the original pleading (right word?) but it’s all pretty much settled, and not in the gentleman’s favor.

  • ColinP November 28, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    I have reviewed for Frontiers journals twice now, and have a much lower opinion of the Frontiers series. The editors handling the manuscripts are sometimes not especially qualified, and there seems to be a push to accept nearly everything. I knew if I simply withdrew as a reviewer, the manuscript would get published anyway, so I stuck with it to get the authors to improve it as much as possible. I don’t think I’ll ever review for them again: it takes too much time, if one is do the responsible thing. For authors, their submission charge is also quite high.

  • Marco November 29, 2016 at 1:39 am

    It is the same journal that published Goodson’s “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent”:
    http://retractionwatch.com/2015/02/24/frontiers-lets-hiv-denier-article-stand-reclassifies-it-as-opinion/

  • herr doktor bimler November 29, 2016 at 2:50 am

    ColinP
    I have reviewed for Frontiers journals twice now, and have a much lower opinion of the Frontiers series. The editors handling the manuscripts are sometimes not especially qualified, and there seems to be a push to accept nearly everything. I knew if I simply withdrew as a reviewer, the manuscript would get published anyway, so I stuck with it to get the authors to improve it as much as possible. I don’t think I’ll ever review for them again: it takes too much time, if one is do the responsible thing. For authors, their submission charge is also quite high.

    I’ve reviewed for Frontiers, and have published with them, so I have a vested interest in wanting them to clean their act up and make the company name synonymous with high standards.

  • Juerg November 29, 2016 at 3:49 am

    Scientific endeavour must question current paradigms and only when a paradigm cannot be falsified it may be valid. A “vaccine-neurological disorders” connection claim questions the current vaccine paradigm and is met with disrespectfulness and even hostility. This study linking vaccines to neurological disorders is observational (and therefore of limited importance) and we know that parents notoriously overestimate side effects but we also know that the medical community tends to underrate these effects, Vioxx is just one example. As a retired physician I miss scientific sincerity in this discussion.

  • Anna November 29, 2016 at 7:39 am

    “Scientific endeavour must question current paradigms and only when a paradigm cannot be falsified it may be valid.”
    When a paradigm cannot be falsified (is not falsifiable?) it is an act of faith and not a scientific endeavour. If the usefulness of vaccines could not be falsified, it would be unjustified to vaccine your kids, that’s sure.
    But the usefulness of vaccines can be very easily falsified, if we don’t see the beneficial effect of the vaccine program. So it can be falsified, it’s just that the falsification doesn’t happen, even this abstract says that the vaccined kids were less likely to be diagnosed with chickenpox and pertussis, typically what you vaccine against.
    In fact, there is another thing that worries me: according to the abstract 40% of kids were not vaccinated – meaning, no vaccination at all, whatsoever, in their lives? Is this a true stat for the US? Aren’t you guys worried a bit about, say, polio?
    And if the questionnaire gave the mothers (btw. and no fathers?) just a box to tick “I vaccinate my child” or “I do not vaccinate my child” then the study is flawed, as there is no way all the vaccines in use have precisely the same side effects…

    • James Lyons-Weiler November 29, 2016 at 8:54 am

      Are you saying that the question of adverse events from vaccines overall is not a testable hypothesis? If so, that is incorrect. Yes, individual vaccines matter, but any adverse health outcome differences in “vaccines” vs. “no vaccines” are inherently testable. How one goes about it is important.

      This study should have been published, as it passed the journal’s standard process of peer review. I object to cherry-picking studies to have them re-reviewed simply because they include controversial results. Science is big enough, and the action of retracting papers due to public outcry outside the journal’s pages and processes subjects science to mob rule. Such a journal therefore does not, in my view, publish science.

      • Narad November 29, 2016 at 12:55 pm

        Science is big enough, and the action of retracting papers due to public outcry outside the journal’s pages and processes subjects science to mob rule. Such a journal therefore does not, in my view, publish science.

        Of course, you have certain, ah, particular views about “Science”, lifebiomedguru:

        “Science remains the virtuous, faithful but jealous lover she always was. The charlatans of science – as I call them, Shamwizards, merely hired a whore named Pseudoscience, and made her up to look like Science, and they have been dancing with her since the late 1970’s, parading her around like Science. And now we see her for the Imposter she is.

        “Vaccine Pseudoscience (VP) is not the first prostitute the CDC has solicited. In fact, the
        ‘scientists’ at the CDC who hired VP are the same people who told you that Agent Orange did not harm our troops.”

      • herr doktor bimler November 29, 2016 at 12:58 pm

        This study should have been published, as it passed the journal’s standard process of peer review

        It provisionally passed peer review, then it unpassed it again. Remember, the Frontiers position is that they haven’t published the paper yet, so the Abstract we saw must have been a hallucination.

  • Kai November 29, 2016 at 9:18 am

    James Lyons-Weiler
    This study should have been published, as it passed the journal’s standard process of peer review. I object to cherry-picking studies to have them re-reviewed simply because they include controversial results. Science is big enough, and the action of retracting papers due to public outcry outside the journal’s pages and processes subjects science to mob rule. Such a journal therefore does not, in my view, publish science.

    While I agree that the call for retraction is steadily becoming more of a hammer, often used by people who disagree with the findings and not the methods, that isn’t really the case here. It is clear even from the brief synopsis above that the study was very poorly designed, possibly to ensure a link to negative effects of vaccination by introducing self-selection biases; such poor science should be retracted. If someone could publish a credible study to show the negative effects then the scientific community would eventually come to accept it. It is telling that these studies are not to be found.

  • herr doktor bimler November 29, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Anna
    And if the questionnaire gave the mothers (btw. and no fathers?) just a box to tick “I vaccinate my child” or “I do not vaccinate my child” then the study is flawed, as there is no way all the vaccines in use have precisely the same side effects…

    The questionnaire includes a Yes/No question;* then parents are requested to find the child’s vaccination records and fill in dates for every vaccination given. There is some small incentive to answer “No vaccinations” just to save effort.

    The larger concern with this project is that anti-vaccination lobby groups were informed about it in advance (indeed, they paid to conduct it), took a proprietary interest in the project, and are invested in seeing a particular outcome. From an anonymous Internet poll, which anyone could answer, honestly or otherwise.

    * H/t Chris Hickie.

    • Gary December 2, 2016 at 5:00 am

      “From an anonymous Internet poll, which anyone could answer, honestly or otherwise.”

      Indeed – as well as the problems that were pointed out above – were people also allowed to “submit” data to the study more than once?
      Bit like those television programmes where you can phone in multiple times to save your favourite dancer/singer from being ejected from the show….

  • Tracy December 9, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Why doesn’t someone ( that everyone can agree on) do the study. There are enough unvaccinated children, ethics should not play a role in it. With electronic medical records collecting data should not be that difficult. Why are The Powers That Be so afraid of this type of study.

    • Marco December 9, 2016 at 4:45 pm

      Various such studies (but much better controlled) have been done. “The Powers That Be” are not afraid to do this type of study, they just cannot get funding for yet another study that in all likelihood just confirms the obvious once again.

  • herr doktor bimler December 9, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    It has been

    Tracy
    Why doesn’t someone ( that everyone can agree on) do the study. There are enough unvaccinated children, ethics should not play a role in it. With electronic medical records collecting data should not be that difficult. Why are The Powers That Be so afraid of this type of study.

    Simple answer — no-one’s afraid of such studies; studies have been conducted; and the myriad Alt-Med websites that described Mawson’s retracted poll as “the first of its kind” were misinformed or lying. You could look it up.
    https://thoughtscapism.com/2015/04/10/myth-no-studies-compare-the-health-of-unvaccinated-and-vaccinated-people/

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