Cancer patients should be aware of scientific misinformation
BRUSSELS – A study by the Anticancer Fund of scientific publications reveals that retracted articles, including some about fake cancer cures, can remain available for more than 3 years, before they are withdrawn. The Anticancer Fund has investigated the problem because of the danger that misinformation poses for cancer patients. Well over 50 percent of cancer patients look for information about treatments on the internet and consult the scientific literature.
The study on journal retractions in oncology, by Pan Pantziarka and Lydie Meheus from the Anticancer Fund, has been published in Future Oncology, a highly respected cancer research journal with an international reach.
Retracted publications are research articles published in scientific journals that are shown to be fraudulent or to contain significant errors. In such cases these articles are clearly marked as ‘retracted’ – a signal that the data should not be trusted – and in some cases completely withdrawn.
Our research reveals that the share of retracted articles in the number of publications in the overall oncology literature has increased in the period 2000-2016. Furthermore, the data shows that over 20 percent of the retracted oncology publications relate to cancer treatments such as clinical trials and studies about supplements. Clinicians and patients must therefore remain alert to the risks of this type of misleading information.
Long article lifetimes
The average article lifetime, or the time between publication and eventual retraction, for the articles in this study was over 1.300 days or more than 3 years. This long period of availability before retraction remains a concern. Publishers do not act in a timely fashion in dealing with fraudulent or problematic publications. Long article lifetimes increase the risk that other publications may cite the problematic papers and also increase the risk that cancer patients may use these papers in making important treatment decisions.
An illustration of the dangers of fraudulent scientific publications is the case of Nobuto Yamamoto and GcMAF, of whom three retracted publications are included in our dataset. These retracted papers were used as foundational texts by sophisticated fraudsters selling fake cures for cancer, autism and HIV. While court rulings have tried to close down this sophisticated and dangerous operation, a number of papers by the fraudsters have yet to be retracted and remain in the literature despite legitimate concerns about the veracity of the claims made by the authors.
Misleading cancer patients
The Anticancer Fund investigated trends in retractions of scientific articles in the oncology literature to pinpoint the danger for cancer patients looking for information on cancer treatments.
“It is not just cancer researchers looking at scientific papers via sites like Pubmed”, says Pan Pantziarka, Program director Drug Repurposing of the Anticancer Fund. “Cancer patients too are doing their own searches looking for different treatment options. Clinicians need to engage with these patients, and that also means being alert to the dangers of retracted publications.”
“Any information that is provided about cancer therapies, should be accurate and secure for cancer patients. Even about ongoing research. There must be a greater readiness to remove scientific publications that contain errors or are shown to be false, for the benefit of the patients”, says Dr. Ian Banks, member of the board of directors of the European Cancer Organisation (ECCO). The organisation represents over 150.000 healthcare professionals active in oncology worldwide.