I won’t go through what’s wrong with Brian Hooker’s “re-analysis” of a paper that failed to find a correlation between measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism, but it was a paper so absolutely incompetent that even a brand new journal like Translational Neurodegeneration considered retracting it. The editors have finally made a decision:
“The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article, as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, a post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis. Therefore, the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologize to all affected parties…”
The first part, about “undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process” is interesting — I wonder what it means. Based on my experience as both a peer reviewer and as someone who has submitted manuscripts to medical journals, my guess is that Hooker probably named one or more of his previous co-authors as suggested reviewers, and the editor used one or more of them.
Since 2013, Hooker has published papers on vaccines and autism co-authored with Mark and David Geier, who are advocates of chemical castration as a treatment for autism. Closely associated with the Geiers are Janet Kern, an registered nurse who used to publish on secretin; and Lisa Sykes, an anti-vaccine activist known for harassing critical bloggers.
Now, I have no idea whether the editor would have double-checked to see if Hooker had recently published with these suggested reviewers. Editors deal with a lot of manuscripts and might not do PubMed searches to verify whether any of the suggested reviewers have published with the author recently. It is the honor system for the most part: You don’t suggest a reviewer for whom reviewing your manuscript would represent an obvious conflict of interest, nor do you agree to review an article for which you have a conflict of interest.
I really thought this paper deserved retraction — of course, it will likely feed the conspiracy theorists of the anti-vaccine movement. On the other hand, I don’t really care much about changing the minds of the zealots at such wretched hives of quackery as Age of Autism or The Thinking Moms’ Revolution. What I do care about is persuading the general public, particularly the fence sitters — and a retraction of a scientific paper sends a powerful message to the public about a study.
Science wins this time. For now.