Journal replaces anti-vaccine paper it retracted for missing conflicts, “number of errors”

A journal retracted a paper about how conflicts of interest might be influencing research into the link between vaccines and autism because — wait for it — the authors failed to disclose conflicts of interest.

According to the retraction notice, the editors retracted the paper without the authors’ agreement, because the authors had a host of personal and professional interests in the field they didn’t declare, such as being associated with organizations involved in autism and vaccine safety. What’s more, the article also contained “a number of errors, and mistakes of various types that raise concerns about the validity of the conclusion.”

But now, Science and Engineering Ethics has published a new version of the article that draws similar conclusions to the retracted one, albeit with an updated conflict of interest statement, among other changes. From the abstract of the revised version:

This review includes a systematic literature search of original studies on the potential relationship between Hg [mercury] and ASD [autism spectrum disorder] from 1999 to August 2015, finding that of the studies with public health and/or industry affiliation, 86% reported no relationship between Hg and ASD. However, among studies without public health and/or industry affiliation, only 21% find no relationship between Hg and ASD. The discrepancy in these results suggests a bias indicative of a conflict of interest.

The original article, “Systematic Assessment of Research on Autism Spectrum Disorder and Mercury Reveals Conflicts of Interest and the Need for Transparency in Autism Research,” came out Oct. 27, 2015. It was retracted Sept. 22, 2017.

The replacement, which has the same title, appeared online Nov. 8.

Journal Co-Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Bird told us she didn’t have time to comment in detail, but said:

We decided that the paper could be revised to provide readers sufficient information to evaluate its content with appropriate skepticism…although its abstract and intro are very much the same, there are major and important differences between the original paper and the revision in Table 2 and other sections.

We contacted several of the authors; only first author Janet Kern replied. She told us:

We disclosed our conflicts of interest, but [Bird] believed more should have been disclosed.

Kern confirmed that the authors did not agree with the retraction and disputed the notion that the paper contained mistakes:

There were no material errors in the paper that affected the conclusion.

However, the authors did make changes in the replacement paper, Kern said, at the request of journal.

One of the co-authors, Brian Hooker, a professor at Simpson University, saw another paper of his — on the (discredited) link between vaccines and autism — retracted in 2014 for similar reasons, namely, “undeclared competing interests.” Prior to retracting that paper, the journal simply pulled it offline while it conducted an investigation.

Like Hooker, several of the paper’s authors are aligned with anti-vaccination activists, including the father-son team of Mark and Dave Geier. In 2012, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, several state medical boards revoked Mark Geier’s license, over an autism treatment protocol he developed. The Geiers, Hooker, and Kern have published several other papers together.

Science and Engineering Ethics’ s decision to retract and replace the article shows the growing use of this maneuver, also employed by other journals such as the Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The paper has not yet been indexed by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. Here’s the full retraction notice for the 2015 version:

Based on an assessment by the Editors, the Conflict of Interest statement of this article is inadequate because it fails to disclose conflicts of interest in addition to the declaration that “the authors have been involved in vaccine/biologic litigation.” In particular, Janet Kern is a board member of CONEM (Council for Nutritional and Environmental Medicine) and Geir Bjorklund is that organization’s founder and President. Mark Geier and David Geier do work under the auspices of the non-profit Institute for Chronic Illnesses, Inc. Lisa Sykes, Mark Geier and David Geier are officers of the Coalition for Mercury-free Drugs (CoMeD, Inc). Richard Deth is on the scientific advisory board of the National Autism Association. Brian Hooker is on the board of Focus for Health. James Love has been involved in amalgam litigation. Boyd Haley is involved in the development of a mercury-chelating agent. Some of the authors have a personal as well as a professional interest in autism. In addition, some authors are or have been involved in litigation related to vaccines and autism.

Furthermore, the article itself contains a number of errors, and mistakes of various types that raise concerns about the validity of the conclusion. As a result, this article is being retracted by the editors without the agreement of the authors. The online version of this article contains the full text of the retracted article as electronic supplementary material.

The new paper’s conflict of interest disclosure includes the relevant parts of this notice.

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4 thoughts on “Journal replaces anti-vaccine paper it retracted for missing conflicts, “number of errors””

  1. I am rather bemused by the authors’ categorisation of what constitutes a conflict of interest.
    Any association between public health or industry, no matter how trivial, is viewed as evidence of provaccine bias. It is difficult to be a scientific or medical expert in a subject like vaccines without having some contact with public health; indeed if people claiming to be experts about vaccines had no contact then I’d be very suspicious about their ability to grasp even the basics about vaccine policy and strategies.

    When categorising studies as having been undertaken by “independent” researchers, they mean those without any affiliations to public health or industry. These researchers are not necessarily best qualified in terms of expertise, and they are not truly independent, certainly where the vaccine-autism concept is involved – many of them are vociferously anti-vaccine, which would undoubtedly serve as a considerable conflict of interest itself and significantly bias their findings.

    As just one example, papers by so called “independent” researchers who found a link between vaccines/mercurials and autism include 15 publications from Geier, who is not independent and severely conflicted. He has had his license to practice medicine withdrawn in around 13 states, and makes his money through serving as an “expert” for antivaccine litigation. Other researchers labelled as “independent” have similarly antivaccine positions, and many are not medically qualified, yet publish on the medical topic of vaccines.

    It is nonsensical to claim that the outcomes of publications on the topic of autism and vaccines may be biased in favour of vaccines because of ostensible provaccine affiliations/conflicts, yet to ignore the more relevant antivaccine affiliations/conflicts of other authors with publications on this issue.
    To claim they are “independent” is a travesty.

  2. Was about to comment in detail, but Mike Stevens nailed it really, what he points out, coupled with the lack of clarity on claims and not being forthcoming about their own affiliations from the outset, shows their own clear bias.

  3. The validity of a study should be based on the authenticity of the data and the soundness of the analysis, both of which should be open for review by 3rd parties. In this way arguments about COI and/or affiliations can be remedied and the data can speak for itself.

  4. I am glad that the paper was retracted because of the “a number of errors, and mistakes of various types that raise concerns about the validity of the conclusion”. This won’t mislead us to the fake conclusion.

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