Jeff Segal, MD, JD, FACS

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the growing number of scientific papers that are being retracted due to mistakes. In the article Mistakes in Scientific Studies Surge, the Journal reports that since 2001, while the number of papers published in research journals grew 44%, the number of articles retracted grew by more than 15-fold.

The article features the case of two popular high-blood-pressure drugs; reportedly found to work better in combination than either did alone. Relying on this finding, doctors across the nation began prescribing the drugs in combination. The problem was, the research was wrong. Instead of protecting against kidney problems, the combination therapy actually exposed the patients to life threatening side effects. Now, six years later, the journal Lancet retracted the paper over what it termed, “serious conditions about the findings.”

Mistakes aren’t the only reason for the increase in retractions. In a study of 742 medicine and biology papers withdrawn between 2000 to 2010; 73.5% were retracted simply for error but 26.6% were retracted for fraud.
The Journal quotes Sheldon Tobe, a kidney-disease specialist at the University of Toronto, “when a study is retracted, it can be hard to make its effects go away.” That statement may be more prophetic than Dr. Tobe imagines.

Like chum for sharks, such mistakes are sure to begin a feeding frenzy. You can imagine the next wave of TV commercials. “Did your doctor prescribe combination drug X, Y, Z? You may have money coming to you. Call us at 1-800- WE-SUE-MDS.” Stay tuned…