Did the medical journal Pediatrics stand by a questioned vaccine-autism study without interviewing the coauthor who confessed to and exposed alleged scientific misconduct?
If so, that would deviate from what should be standard procedure in such an investigation, according to internationally recognized medical ethicist Dr. Michael Carome.
“If the evidence seems substantial, the journal should contact all co-authors, present them with the allegations and supporting evidence, and ask them to respond,” says Carome, a research ethics expert who heads the Health Research Group at the watchdog group Public Citizen.
Last month, William Thompson, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped forward to say that he and his CDC coauthors omitted key data showing a link between MMR vaccine and autism in African American children. The study was published in 2004 in the journal Pediatrics.
“I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information,” said Thompson in a statement issued through his attorney August 27. “The omitted data suggested that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism. Decisions were made regarding which findings to report after the data were collected, and I believe that the final study protocol was not followed.”
It may be unprecedented for the author of a scientific, peer-reviewed article to publicly expose alleged flaws in his own work and that of his colleagues.
“Upon receiving such an allegation, the journal editors should ask the co-author making the allegations to submit them in writing along with the supporting evidence,” says Carome. “In this case, that should include the data that was allegedly withheld improperly.”
However, it appears officials with Pediatrics may have disregarded Thompson’s allegations without speaking to him or examining his documentation. That would mean they interviewed only the co-authors who are accused of improprieties.
When asked about its review process, Pediatrics spokeswoman Susan Stevens Martin initially seemed to imply that the journal had interviewed Thompson.
“There’s a standard process that journals follow when an article is questioned,” Martin said in an email. “Those discussions took place between the editors of Pediatrics and the authors of this study, and the editors concluded the research was appropriately conducted.”
When repeatedly pressed on whether Thompson was consulted, Martin avoided a direct answer.
“The editors followed our normal protocol and are satisfied with the responses by the CDC authors,” she stated, again implying Thompson—a CDC author—was among those consulted.
But a source familiar with Thompson claims that Pediatrics officials never contacted him about his allegations.
When asked for details about its review process and why Thompson wasn’t consulted, the Pediatrics spokeswoman would only say, “The journal takes allegations of the use of fraudulent data seriously” and that it “investigated the allegations in accordance with the Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines and has decided that a retraction is not warranted.”
The Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines states that a journal should “issue an expression of concern” about an article if “authors produce conflicting accounts.”
“As a publisher we take very seriously any questions about articles in our journal and have a set procedure to investigate such issues. We have followed that process, discussed the research methods with the authors, and have determined to take no action regarding the article. Additional questions about the study and its data should be referred to CDC,” said Martin.