Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wakefield Sues BMJ Editor for Defamation

Wow. Author of the a now-discredited Lancet article which started a vaccine scare by falsely linking MMR vaccination to autism onset, Andrew Wakefield is suing BMJ's editor, Fiona Godlee, and British investigative journalist Brian Deer, for defamation of his character. The complaint, filed in Travis County, Texas, is here. It focuses fairly narrowly on statements by Godlee and Deer to the effect that Wakefield manipulated or falsified data in the study.

The UK's General Medical Council, after the longest hearing in its history, found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct in connection with the conduct of the research underlying the article, and erased him from its rolls. But they didn't specifically find that he altered data in the study; their main complaint about the article itself was that it mischaracterized the children under study--especially the means by which, and purpose for which, they were recruited. The GMC's findings spoke mainly to other forms of research and clinical misconduct. To review, the GMC found that Wakefield violated the limits of his appointment as an Honorary Consultant in a "breach of trust of patients and employers alike," and mismanaged funds, and failed to disclose "matters which could legitimately give rise to a perception of a conflict of interest," and conducted research on vulnerable children without required ethics review, and concealed that fact, and repeatedly breached "fundamental principles of research medicine," and acted contrary to the clinical interests of 9 of the 12 children mentioned in the article, and violated his duties as a senior author, and failed to correct his mistakes when given the chance, and made "dishonest and irresponsible" statements to the GMC board itself.

Of course, the fact that Wakefield was unprofessional in a bunch of different ways doesn't mean that he was unprofessional in all of the ways that Godlee or Deer have, at one time or another, alleged. It's just possible that one or the other of them has said something factually wrong by accusing Wakefield of some specific kind of scumbaggery that he didn't actually engage in. If so, may the damages found be very, very small.

Because the damage caused by Wakefield hasn't been small. The publicity around his unethical research likely caused children to die of completely preventable childhood diseases, and is certainly still causing misguided parents to fail to vaccinate their children. It is depressing to note that here, the Autism Action Network is already trumpeting Wakefield's suit against Deer and a woman whom they call "Fiona Godley." Their view is that Wakefield and his co-author John Walker-Smith "had their medical licenses suspended for their refusal to recant their hypothesis." They don't mention the actual GMC findings against Wakefield, nor those against Walker-Smith (which you can read here), nor the fact that in 2004, six years before the GMC acted, Walker-Smith and nine of Wakefield's other co-authors specifically retracted the portion of the paper that posited a link of MMR with autism.


  1. As I am wont to do, I am keeping a list of reactions to Wakefield's suit at Andrew Wakefield's latest legal action: roundup. I've added this post to the list.

    One thing I'd like to note, for your readers who may not be familiar with the world of autism: the "Autism Action Network" does not represent all folk affected by autism. A small minority of autism parents, and a vanishingly small fraction of autistic adults, support Wakefield or believe in the concept of "autism as vaccine injury".

  2. Thanks, Liz. And thanks for the absolutely correct comment on the non-representative status of Autism Action Network.