Research practices must be changed to minimize fraud, deception

Mar 22, 2011

In 1998, a study linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism in children appeared in a respected medical journal. For a decade, the study grabbed headlines worldwide. Worried parents rejected the life-saving vaccine for their children and those with autistic children agonized that they allowed an injection that caused the condition.

But the vaccine-autism research was a fraud. The paper was retracted 12 years later, denounced as an elaborate deception.

"The fraud in that MMR study epitomizes how fabricated research can lead to a of tragic consequences," says Vineet Chopra, M.D., F.A.C.P., F.H.M., assistant professor of Internal Medicine at U-M. "Patients fear potentially lifesaving interventions, clinicians alter practice and scientists and governments waste precious resources to evaluate researchers' claims."

Chopra expresses these concerns in a commentary published in the March 23 with Matthew Davis, M.D., M.A.P.P., associate professor of pediatrics and , internal medicine and public policy at the University of Michigan Medical School and Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. They call for changes throughout the research process to adjust expectations for researchers that conduct studies, the journals that publish results and the public that responds to the findings.

Chopra and Davis emphasize the critical importance of equipoise—a state of genuine uncertainty on the part of the researcher as to what a study will reveal.

"In an era of increasing competition for funding and publication, researchers face mounting pressure to report the results they wish to see," says Davis. "Of course, it's natural for the public to want unequivocal advances in understanding and the latest accomplishments in medical research. But research doesn't always yield those results.

"The key is for funders, journals, the media and the public to value equipoise in the research process, rather than only the results."

In their JAMA commentary, Chopra and Davis recommend steps to reach research equipoise:

  1. Mandate the public release of all available data in connection with a study, as opposed to specific data associated with outcomes.
  2. Reduce publication bias, in which medical journals accept and publish chiefly those studies with statistically significant results. This jeopardizes consideration and dissemination of research pertaining to findings on both sides of an issue, and influences investigators before research begins.
  3. Shift the focus of public and private sponsors of research from outcome to process, affirming that study veracity is more valuable than results.
  4. Train researchers to recognize, appreciate and root out biases in their work.
"Researchers may lie about their research for personal or political gain. They make front page news when they get caught, but they represent a small part of the overall picture. A broader problem occurs when a researcher conducts a study with an answer to their question already in mind. Their certainty, rather than genuine uncertainty, influences their investigation and reporting, leading to results that may not be accurate," says Chopra.

Explore further: Liver transplant recipient marks 25th anniversary

More information: "Society demands research that is moral, ethical and honest. When this is not the case, both the public and researchers, even those telling the truth, lose." JAMA, March 23/30, 2011, Vol. 305, No. 12

Related Stories

Autism study doctor says victim of smears

Jan 06, 2011

The doctor behind a linking childhood autism to a vaccine that has been branded a fraud by the British Medical Journal said he was the victim of a smear campaign by drug manufacturers. ...

Autism-vaccine study was 'fraud' says journal (Update)

Jan 05, 2011

A 1998 study that linked childhood autism to a vaccine was branded an "elaborate fraud" by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Thursday, but its lead author said he was the victim of a smear campaign by drug manufacturers. ...

Vaccines and autism: Many hypotheses, but no correlation

Jan 30, 2009

An extensive new review summarizes the many studies refuting the claim of a link between vaccines and autism. The review, in the February 15, 2009 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases and now available online, looks at the ...

Will autism fraud report be a vaccine booster?

Jan 06, 2011

(AP) -- This week more shame was heaped upon the discredited British researcher whose work gave rise to the childhood-vaccines-cause-autism movement, as a prominent medical journal published a report that the man had faked his data. But will ...

Britain bans doctor who linked autism to vaccine

May 24, 2010

(AP) -- Britain's top medical group banned a doctor who was the first to publish peer-reviewed research suggesting a connection between a common vaccine and autism from practicing in the country, finding ...

Recommended for you

Doctor behind 'free radical' aging theory dies

Nov 25, 2014

Dr. Denham Harman, a renowned scientist who developed the most widely accepted theory on aging that's now used to study cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses, has died in Nebraska at age 98.

Mexican boy who had massive tumor recovering

Nov 25, 2014

An 11-year-old Mexican boy who had pieces of a massive tumor removed and who drew international attention after U.S. officials helped him get treatment in the southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico is still recovering after ...

New medical device to make the mines safer

Nov 21, 2014

Dehydration can be a serious health issue for Australia's mining industry, but a new product to be developed with input from Flinders University's Medical Device Partnering Program (MDPP) is set to more effectively ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

88HUX88
5 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2011
Yes, and what about how the media report findings (even valid ones), without them this MMR controversy may have been self-limiting, the biggest impact of various media (print and broadcast) is creating the two sides illusion and then giving equal weight to a vast amount of evidence versus a nutter - sorry iconoclast. In their defence, it makes a great story.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.