A big measles outbreak in the US is generating considerable news of late. Much of the blame, rightfully so in my opinion, is centered on parents who have refused to vaccinate their children out of ill-founded paranoia. Most of their anti-vaccine “thinking,” if you can call it that, is grounded in muddled anti-science. However, one of the intellectual pillars of the anti-measles movement is rooted in peer-reviewed science. And not just any science, but none other than the acclaimed high impact journal Lancet. To my way of thinking this is a big part of the problem.
Andrew Wakefield’s much ballyhooed and eventually discredited 1998 Lancet article, concluded that childhood vaccines were a possible cause for autism. Parents of autistic children seized upon this possibility, especially A-list celebrity Jenny McCarthy, invoking the Wakefield article as proof of their fears. Unable to weigh the scientific merits for themselves, the fanatical anti-vaccine public at large ascribed considerable veracity and power to the Wakefield article in large part because of its publication in Lancet; although undoubtedly this article also reinforced a narrative they wanted to believe. Like most of its peers within the “luxury” journal domain, Lancet revels in every opportunity to burnish its reputation for publishing “important,” high quality science and in doing so, laughing all the way to the bank. It is impossible to believe that had the Wakefield article been published in the Burmese Journal of Gastroenterology it would have gotten nearly the same zealous respect it did in Lancet.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fault Lancet for publishing a bad paper; such risk is intrinsic to publishing a peer-reviewed journal. However I do take issue with the reputation Lancet seeks to foster around impact factor and by intimating that their peer review process results in a meaningfully more valid scientific publication; the Wakefield article being a perfect case in point of why this thinking is flawed. Any scientist with integrity knows that the proper perspective for approaching all scientific publications involves a substantial dose of skepticism until the findings within have been replicated, oftentimes more than once.
Despite its subsequent retraction, Wakefield anti-vaccine believers refuse to relent, claiming even today that allegations of scientific misconduct are a conspiracy at the highest levels of science. If the Wakefield article had instead been refuted by a democratic barrage of post-publication critique and scoring, ala SIQ, it would be much harder for the anti-vaccine fanatics to keep believing in discredited science. That said, as long as luxury journals are perceived as having a uniquely rigorous peer review system, and therefore uniquely truthful, the public health will be disserved as we are currently witnessing in this measles outbreak. We at Cureus continue to believe that there is a better process via more rigorous post-publication review, as implemented in our SIQ. Give it a chance – you’ll be surprised.