Open-access journal pulls latest flawed study linking vaccines to autism

Frontiers retracted a study that alleged a link between vaccines and autism. Image: HHS

Vaccines are causing more autism cases among kids? Frontiers in Public Health recently accepted a survey-based research effort—decidedly unscientific in design—suggesting it's so. Now, after receiving heavy criticism, the publisher has retracted the abstract.

The retracted study used anonymous online surveys forwarded by homeschool organizations in four states to their members. Its abstract, accepted by the Frontiers in Public Health journal on November 21, reported that children who were vaccinated were three times more likely to be diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Survey results were collected on 666 children aged 6 to 12 years old in 415 families.

The journal quickly pulled the article after being bombarded by criticism of its motives and credibility, later releasing a short statement on Twitter. Frontiers said the article was “provisionally accepted but not published,” and that it has reopened its review.

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The paper, first authored by Anthony Mawson, a visiting professor of epidemiology at Jackson State University, was reportedly peer reviewed by Linda Mullin, a chiropractor at Life University, and Kueifang Hsieh, a research associate professor for disability and human development at University of Illinois at Chicago.

At Retraction Watch noted, Frontiers has some history accepting strange studies and then walking them back. So far this year, it has pulled a study on chemtrails, a conspiracy theory that jet exhaust is harmful. Another retracted study claimed some people could determine whether people are dead or alive simply by looking at old photographs. Last year, academic librarian Jeffrey Beall listed it as a "potential, possible or probable predatory scholarly open-access publisher."

According to its website, Frontiers is a "community-rooted, open-access academic publisher."

This is not the first time a publisher has retracted a flawed study that supports a link between vaccines and neurological or behavioral problems. The autism claim itself has continued for years despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and despite a series of paper retractions.

In February, Vaccine, another peer-reviewed journal focused specifically on vaccines, took down a paper linking Merck & Co.’s human papillomavirus shot Gardasil with behavior problems in mice. The scientists involved in that study was also found to be heavily funded by anti-vaccination groups.

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