Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Did Brian Deer Use Deception to Collect Data Included in the BMJ Article?

Flickr photo by Petroglyph
You know, there are certain topics that just won't just quietly slip into the night.  Vaccines and autism is one, too much TV causing autism is another, and then there is the whole Dr.  de-doctored Wakefield and Deer affair.

Before I say anything else, just let me say that this article is not about Wakefield.  I am not trying to imply that I agree, disagree, endorse, or condemn the former doctor.  This article is not about him, so before reading the following please try and put his name and all of the baggage associated with it to the side.

Have a clear mind?  Ok, good.  With your newly cleared mind, ask yourself the following question.  Is it ever acceptable for an article published in a peer-reviewed journal to use deception to obtain data for the article?

According to an article published on Age of Autism, Brian Deer might have done just that in obtaining data included in his "peer-reviewed" article in the BMJ -
What Deer did not say in the BMJ article is that he had lied to the mother about his identity, claiming to be someone named “Brian Lawrence” (his middle name). Deer had written a number of critical articles about parents’ claims of vaccine injury, and if he gave his real name, he doubtless feared, Child 2’s mother would not agree to talk to him. Once she checked his blog, she would be more likely to kick him out of the family home than sit still for what turned into a six-hour inquisition.
He even created a fake e-mail address for his fake identity, and he used it to communicate with her: lawrence_b_st@yahoo.com.
Now, I am sure that your first reaction is a yes but.

Yes, but this is Age of Autism and everyone knows that are biased.
Yes, but this is Wakefied we are talking about and he is evil incarnate.
Yes, but whatever other reason you come up with that this either A. never happened or B. is excusable.

Remember, this isn't about Wakefield and two wrongs don't make a right.

A journalist can play fast and loose with the truth and still be considered good enough to be published in the newspaper.  However, the standard for peer-reviewed research is much, much higher.  The standard for research is informed consent - a person has to be given enough information to fully understand exactly is happening and what their options are.

So the question here is one of fact.  Deer was either completely upfront about who he was and why he was doing the interview or he wasn't.

Consider what Deer said about this interview in the article in the BMJ -
I travelled to the family home, 80 miles northeast of London, to hear about child 2 from his mother. That was in September 2003, when the lawsuit fell apart after counsel representing 1500 families said that, on the evidence, Barr’s autism claims would fail.23 By that time, Mrs 2 had seen her son’s medical records and expert reports written for her case at trial.
Her concerns about MMR had been noted by her general practitioner when her son was 6 years old.24 But she told me the boy’s troubles began after his vaccination, which he received at 15 months.25 “He’d scream all night, and he started head banging, which he’d never done before,” she explained.
“When did that begin, do you think?” I asked.
“That began after a couple of months, a few months afterward, but it was still, it was concerning me enough, I remember going back . . .”
“Sorry. I don’t want to be, like, massively pernickety, but was it a few months, or a couple of months?”
“It was more like a few months because he’d had this, kind of, you know, slide down. He wasn’t right. He wasn’t right. Before he started.”
“Not quicker than two months, but not longer than how many months? What are we talking about here?”
“From memory, about six months, I think.” 
The next day, she complained to my editors. She said my methods “seemed more akin to the gutter press.” But I was perplexed by her story, since there was no case in the Lancet that matched her careful account.
From the little bit of information included, it is almost impossible to know what the truth of the matter is.  Deer's admission that the mother did call and complain to Deer's editors about his methods does lend credence to the idea that something he did wasn't exactly on the up and up.

If AoA is correct and Brian Deer did lie about his identity to obtain an interview then, by definition, he used fraud to obtain his "data".  If those "data" were later included in his "peer-reviewed" article, then his article was based, at least in part, on fraud.

It may be impossible to know what exactly happened here, but I can say one thing with absolute certainty - outright fraud has no place in science.  If statements included in the BMJ article were obtained fraudulently then the only ethical choice for the BMJ would be to retract the article.

Think of it this way, if any other peer reviewed article in the BMJ stated that one the subjects in the study had to call and complain about a researcher's conduct, what exactly would you think of the article?  What would you think of the journal that published it?

I know there are a lot of ifs here, but between Deer's statements about the interview, the articles being commissioned by the journal, Deer's inherit bias against Wakefield, the BMJ's admitted failure to disclose a relevant financial conflict of interest, and now the accusation of fraud, this entire affair is starting to stink.

I guess this is what happens when prestigious medical journals consort with tabloid journalists.

1 comment:

  1. There are also questions about how Brian Deer obtained the medical records of the 12 children who participated in the Lancet case series. If Brian Deer had not been able to obtain the names, addresses and medical histories of these children his research would have been much more limited.