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December 8, 2011

When Andrew Wakefield linked the MMR vaccine to autism and bowel disorders in a 1998 paper for The Lancet, it filled newspapers and sent panic through the nation. More than a decade later, when the General Medical Council found that he had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly in his research", Dr Wakefield was struck off the medical register.

The press has been castigated for its reporting of Dr Wakefield's work, especially by Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science column in The Guardian. But an academic institution has also come under fire.

Early this year, Fiona Godlee, the editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), asked for University College London - Dr Wakefield's former employer - to set up an independent inquiry into its role in the scandal. Yet 10 months on from her intervention, no inquiry has materialised. Dr Godlee recently wrote an editorial decrying UCL's inaction.

Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Centre, does not agree. "I cannot see what is to be gained from yet another expensive and lengthy inquiry into what went wrong," she writes in her blog On Science and the Media.

"It also seems especially harsh on UCL. At the time The Lancet paper was published, the Royal Free Medical School [where Dr Wakefield worked] was not even part of UCL...As a result of the GMC ruling on Wakefield last year, UCL has already initiated a review of its research governance, which is ongoing."

While Dr Godlee says that an investigation into UCL is vital to ensure the integrity of academic institutions' output, Ms Fox believes the academy and the media have learned their lessons.

"I have been in rooms when editors admitted they called it wrong on MMR and claimed that they [now] defer to their specialist science and health reporters more," she writes.

"There were other positive spin-offs which few people mention...In 1998, autism was common but badly neglected by doctors and the research community. It isn't now. Talking to vaccine scientists, I gather that they have also learned much that is helpful from this episode that has global value."

While Ms Fox admits that the mainstream media still fall short on science reporting, she thinks the academic press also contributes to scaremongering. "Sadly this is still a lethal combination...And here's the thing...A high percentage of the scare stories we see each week come from the key 5-10 medical journals.

"Many are genuinely alarming and are covered in a balanced and accurate way. Others are sensationalized by reporters or sub-editors. But some are studies with significant weaknesses that are not always highlighted as much as they could be by the journal press releases or by the authors announcing the results."

Ms Fox believes that cases such as MMR should remain in the public eye to remind us of how damaging bad science reporting can be. But continuing the "blame game" may make us lose sight of the original culprits, she says. "Hardly anyone involved in the MMR saga emerges smelling of roses," she writes, "but in the end the person most responsible has been identified and punished appropriately.

"Instead of now focusing on UCL, I think it's time to concentrate our efforts on improving the way we all communicate science to the public, ensuring something like this never happens again."

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