Dr. Murray Feingold: Are too many medical articles being retracted?
How do we know if drug A is effective in treating a certain disease?
To determine this, researchers design a scientific study in which a number of patients with the same disease receive drug A. An equal number of similar patients with the same disease do not receive drug A but a placebo, a substance that has no therapeutic effect. Researchers then account for or eliminate any "variables" in both patient groups that may be present that could influence the results of the study, such as the presence of smoking or certain diseases. The final results are analyzed to make certain they are statistically correct.
Finally, it can be determined if drug A is more effective in treating the disease than is the placebo. If it is, and subsequent studies verify these findings, the doctor now can consider using this drug to treat the disease that was studied.
These studies are then published in peer-reviewed medical journals. That means, others who have expertise on the subject being discussed review all of the data presented and, along with the editors of the journal, decide if it is accurate and significant enough to warrant publication.
Although this system isn’t perfect, it remains the best way to determine what articles should be published in the medical literature. But at times, the data presented in the article were not accurate due to a variety of reasons. When this is determined, the journal retracts the article.
How big a problem is this?
Although the number of retracted articles is small, over the years it has grown. In 2012, about 1 in 10,000 articles were retracted. One reason for retraction is sometimes, after publication of the article, inadvertent errors are found. And sadly, about two-thirds of the articles were retracted because of misconduct such as falsifications, fabrications, untruths, plagiarism and suspected fraud.
Probably the most notable article that was retracted was the study claiming an association between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. As a result of this claim, many parents were reluctant to have their children vaccinated. The editors of the journal in which it was published called the study an "elaborate fraud."
Fortunately, the number of retractions is small but it does emphasize why all studies need to be substantiated by further studies to verify their accuracy.
Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of The Feingold Center for Children, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.