Journal retracts 16-year-old paper based on debunked autism-vaccine study

Andrew Wakefield

Better late than never? Or too little too late?

Those are two different ways to look at a recent retraction.

Eight years after one of the most infamous retractions in science — that of the 1998 paper in The Lancet in which Andrew Wakefield and colleagues in the UK claimed a link between vaccines and autism — the journal Lab Medicine  is retracting a paper that relied heavily on the now-discredited work. The paper, by Bernard Rimland and Woody McGinnis, of the Autism Research Institute, in San Diego, California, begins:

Vaccinations may be one of the triggers for autism. Substantial data demonstrate immune abnormality in many autistic children consistent with impaired resistance to infection, activation of inflammatory response, and autoimmunity. Impaired resistance may predispose to vaccine injury in autism.

Rimland died in 2006. McGinnis has not responded to a request for comment.

As Roger L. Bertholf, the editor in chief of Lab Medicine, and Pietro Ghezzi — neither of whom had anything to do with the acceptance or publication of the 2002 paper — write in an editorial announcing the move:

[F]lawed studies that remain in the literature can be harmful when these studies are used by non-scientists to support conclusions that have long since been discredited by subsequent studies. We have learned that this is the case with an article by Rimland and McGinnis that was published in Lab Medicine in 2002. The paper proposed a mechanism linking vaccinations with autism, and its conclusions were substantially based on a 1998 paper by Wakefield, published in The Lancet, that first suggested this association. In 2010, after thorough investigation, The Lancet withdrew the Wakefield paper, explaining that several elements of the study it reported had been determined to be incorrect.

An overwhelming amount of data in the literature show that vaccination, which has existed for more than 2 centuries, is a beneficial preventative measure against infectious diseases. A single article that suggests a risk of autism associated with vaccination might not be expected to cause great harm; however, a recent study reported that the 2002 Rimland and McGinnis paper is frequently accessed and cited to support the position of those who oppose vaccination on the mistaken belief that it is a risk factor for autism.

One of us (P.G.) was the senior author of that study. Therefore, following the course taken by The Lancet, Lab Medicine has decided to withdraw the 2002 article by Rimland and McGinnis. The article will no longer be available in the Lab Medicine digital archives, and a statement that the article has been withdrawn will appear in any PubMed search that produces the citation.

We asked Bertholf, why now? The paper has been cited just a handful of times by other scientific papers. Bertholf said that he was

…aware of the paper’s existence when I took over as Editor in Chief in 2012, but didn’t give any thought to retraction until I saw Dr. Ghezzi’s study, which revealed that the Rimland and McGinnis paper was prominently displayed in search engine result pages. This caused me some concern that the paper would be used to advance an anti-vaccine agenda, and I did not want the American Society for Clinical Pathology, which publishes Lab Medicine and is a leader in promoting global health, to be viewed as endorsing a paper on vaccination that has a false and potentially dangerous premise based on the flawed paper retracted by The Lancet. I should point out that Lab Medicine has absolute editorial independence from the ASCP, and this decision was not driven by its leadership. It was the perception of endorsement, however, that concerned me.

We also asked Bertholf why the journal was making the paper disappear, instead of leaving it published but watermarking it, as per Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines. He said that was an error:

[Y]ou are correct that COPE recommends watermarking, but not removing, retracted papers. This was a miscommunication between me and our publisher, Oxford University Press, when we discussed the procedure for retraction of a paper (a procedure that was entirely new to me). We will correct the error and make the paper available with a watermark, as recommended by COPE. I appreciate your pointing that out. I also intend to publish a correction to clarify the statement in the editorial that the paper will not be available.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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3 thoughts on “Journal retracts 16-year-old paper based on debunked autism-vaccine study”

  1. Another important factor that would in my opinion support the removal of this and other erroneous papers is the current political climate, a tool of which is the false assignation of “fake news,” which could cause those who believe the vaccine/autism asserion to increase their commitment to that belief. Such a response would increase the incidents of illness (and in some individuals, death) due to vaccine avoidance, as well as a consequential increase in transmitted disease.

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