The Mawson “vaxed/unvaxed” study retraction: The antivaccine movement reacts with tears of unfathomable sadness

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been writing about two incredibly bad “studies” by Anthony Mawson, an antivaccinationist and Andrew Wakefield fanboi, who first published one of them in a bottom-feeding predatory open access journal and saw it retracted. Then he appears to have divided the study up two minimal publishable units and had them published as two papers in a bottom-feeding predatory open access journal even lower on the food chain that the first, after having promoted its second coming among the antivaccine crowd. Obviously, I’m not going to go into the details of each study’s failings in scientific design and execution, as the links in this paragraph do that at my usual length. I will, however, mention that the studies were funded by two antivaccine groups, Generation Rescue and the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), the group associated with Jenny McCarthy and Claire Dwoskin’s group, respectively.

I’ll also mention that both papers appear to have been retracted by even the lower level bottom-feeding predatory open access journal that had briefly published them. (What will be even more entertaining is when Open Access Text, the publisher of The Journal of Translational Science—the journal in which Mawson’s papers were published—explains the reason for the retractions, which it hasn’t done yet.) The reason I mention that (besides that it feels good to do so) is that it has made the antivaccine movement very, very unhappy, at least those who’ve noticed the retraction. Many, if not most, antivaccine activists appear not to have noticed the retraction yet, given the continuing flow of crowing press releases gloating about how there are now definitive studies showing that vaccinated children are sicker than unvaccinated children. Never mind that neither study, both of which were based on the same dataset, shows anything of the sort. The retraction, however, does make the contemplation of how bad these studies are just that more delicious, particularly when groups like the Alliance for Natural Health publish articles using the Mawson studies as a basis for demanding that the FDA study vaccines.

So do the tears of antivaccinationists, for example, Sayer Ji of GreenMedInfo:

In today’s newsletter, we feature an article about two small but powerful studies. They apparently terrify the vaccine industry champions to such an extent that they will publish falsehoods to keep the studies out of the public eye. Dr. Anthony Mawson, author of “Pilot Comparative Study on the Health of Vaccinated and Unvaccinated 6 – 12 Year Old U.S. Children” and “Preterm birth, vaccination and neurodevelopmental disorders: A cross-sectional study of 6 – 12 year old vaccinated and unvaccinated children” has been the target of Retraction Watch, an online blog of the “Center for Scientific Integrity” which receives “generous” funding from The MacArthur Foundation to promote integrity in science.

This fake news blog, which we hope the foundation will disavow, has been used to target a 35-year career scientist and his research in order to derail publication of two papers that were peer reviewed and accepted on their merits. Retraction Watch falsely claimed that one of the studies had been retracted by another journal, when it had never been officially accepted. They compounded the falsehood by claiming the paper had been retracted a second time, when it had simply been temporarily removed pending a response from the author to the false allegation.

Ah, “fake news”! The all-purpose epithet used by cranks (including our President) to describe any news, analysis, or criticism that they don’t like. Retraction Watch, of course, is generally highly respected in the biomedical field. It does work that needs to be done, publicizing retractions that otherwise might never come to public attention, shining light into the darker recesses of biomedical research, and doing its part to keep scientists honest. You might be wondering what that bit about the paper not having been “retracted” once before this latest round is about. Basically, as I explained before, the abstract of the study was posted to the website of a Frontiers journal (the first bottom-feeding open access predatory journal) as having been accepted. At the time, I wondered why that was, as I noted that the peer reviewers were a chiropractor and a physician utterly unqualified to review a paper like this. It was never explained. In any case, Ji is using that ambiguity to claim that the article was never retracted. From my perspective, though, accepting a paper and then “un-accepting” it is a distinction without a difference. Of course, Ji might well be embarrassed, given how the day before the retractions were noticed his site had published a glowing review of Mawson’s recent publications by Jeffrey Jaxon that concluded that “the battle now rages between openness and transparency versus the protection, through omission and overt censorship, of Big Pharma’s business model and need for ever-expanding bottom lines at all costs.” Predictably, that’s how the retraction—if true retraction it is—is being spun by antivaxers.

At the time of the original retraction (or un-accepting) of the first incarnation of Mawson’s study, CMSRI, one of the organizations that funded the study, sicced an attack poodle on Retraction Watch. Why she wrote to Retraction Watch instead of the journal editor, I have no idea. Retraction Watch just reports and sometimes complains; it’s the journal that decides whether a paper is retracted or not. Writing to Retraction Watch “for an explanation” is rather pointless, but that’s what Celeste McGovern did anyway:

Celeste McGovern, a freelance journalist who has extensively covered the publication of these studies wrote to Retraction Watch asking for an explanation:

“The journal had neither formally accepted or retracted it. Clearly, there is a difference, as journals may decline to publish articles without finding fault in them but retraction is usually based upon some scientific mistake or misconduct in the science of the study that is measurable and objective and it is frequently a charge that has serious negative consequences on the careers of the scientists who published the study.Could you please direct me to the complaints about the study so that I can inform now my readers which now number in hundreds of thousands whether there is an honest mistake by the authors and where that is, or misconduct in reporting the truth of their data and what specifically that is?

If there is no such mistake or misconduct it would seem that reporting such would be itself a grave violation of the standard codes of scholarly conduct and ethical behaviour in professional scientific research and the pursuit of truth. Indeed, a mistake of this magnitude would be defined as scientific misconduct itself.

At first, I thought that this was about the latest retractions, but then I read this passage more closely and realized that this was almost certainly about the first retraction (or “un-accepting,” if you prefer). Basically, she was grasping at straws then.

Oh, please. Retraction Watch is not a scientific journal. It’s a science blog focusing on retracted studies, why they’re retracted, and how they’re retracted.

Elsewhere, over on Facebook antivaccine-friendly pediatrician Dr. Bob Sears is claiming that the paper hasn’t been retracted, claiming instead:

Update: The link was temporarily not working due to overwhelming traffic. It is now up and running again. Enjoy, and share!

It wasn’t clear whether Sears was referring to the link to the fawning article over at his Immunity Education Group, Finally! A Study Compares the Health of Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated Children: The Results May Surprise You. (A more click-baity title is hard to imagine.) There, Sears claims:

UPDATE: Interestingly, by the time of publishing, this study has been forced offline and some links to it have been de-activated. Some have even falsely claimed the study has been retracted. It hasn’t, but perhaps some believe the results were a little too shocking? You can read the study (and a separate cross-sectional study of the same data) here:

Pilot comparative study on the health of vaccinated and unvaccinated 6- to 12-year old U.S. children, Mawson AR, et al, Journal of Translational Science Apr 24, 2017

Preterm birth, vaccination and neurodevelopmental disorders: a cross-sectional study of 6- to 12-year-old vaccinated and unvaccinated children, Mawson AR, et al, Journal of Translational Science Apr 24, 2017

Note that those two links go to the antivaccine group CMSRI, which is hosting the PDFs for the articles. (For anyone who wants to read them and see for himself or herself the epic incompetence involved, there’s another source for the “retracted” articles.) As for whether the papers have been retracted or not, it’s more confusing than ever. However, I tend to take the word of Retraction Watch, which has a track record of accuracy, compared to Dr. Bob Sears, who does not and in fact has a long track record of promoting antivaccine misinformation. Of course, given that Open Access Text is one of the lowest of the low predatory open access publishers, I doubt we’ll ever see an explanation for its action, its statement to Retraction Watch notwithstanding.

I’m more amused by Dr. Sears’ contortions defending the study on Facebook. Let’s just put it this way. If Sears thinks these are valid studies whose results should be taken seriously, his approach to scientific studies leaves so much to be desired as to cast into doubt everything he says in his Vaccine Book. For instance, in response to a criticism of the study that this was not a valid study but “was merely a survey of a small group of homeschool moms, and was not scientific in any way” (which is true and similar to my criticism of these garbage studies), Sears responds:

It is labeled as a “Pilot” study, which means that you are correct in that you can’t draw definite conclusions from it, as the article states. BUT, pilot studies can’t be ignored either. Because the CDC won’t research it, others have to, and it begins with pilot studies to see if MORE research is warranted.

Hilariously, another commenter responds by citing the NIH’s National Health Interview Survey, which is a ridiculous comparison. The NHIS is everything that Mawson’s ad hoc survey is not. Another cites a survey by, a survey that’s, if anything, even worse than Mawson’s survey. I had fun deconstructing it a year and a half ago.

I look forward to any statement, if any is forthcoming, from Open Access Text. In the meantime, I will enjoy the pretzels of false justifications and excuses into which antivaxers are contorting themselves over this study and its removal from the Journal of Translational Science website. Their tears of unfathomable sadness are delicious: