“Is Cybermedicine Killing You?” – The Story of a Cochrane Disaster

June 30, 2005 by sa4fa@virginia.edu

This editorial briefly reviews the series of unfortunate events that led to the publication, dissemination, and eventual retraction of a flawed Cochrane systematic review on interactive health communication applications (IHCAs), which was widely reported in the media with headlines such as “Internet Makes Us Sick,” “Knowledge May Be Hazardous to Web Consumers’ Health,” “Too Much Advice Can Be Bad for Your Health,” “Click to Get Sick?” and even “Is Cybermedicine Killing You?” While the media attention helped to speed up the identification of errors, leading to a retraction of the review after only 13 days, a paper published in this issue of JMIR by Rada shows that the retraction, in contrast to the original review, remained largely unnoticed by the public. We discuss the three flaws of the review, which include (1) data extraction and coding errors, (2) the pooling of heterogeneous studies, and (3) a problematic and ambiguous scope and, possibly, some overlooked studies. We then discuss “retraction ethics” for researchers, editors/publishers, and journalists. Researchers and editors should, in the case of retractions, match the aggressiveness of the original dissemination campaign if errors are detected. It is argued that researchers and their organizations may have an ethical obligation to track down journalists who reported stories on the basis of a flawed study and to specifically ask them to publish an article indicating the error. Journalists should respond to errors or retractions with reports that have the same prominence as the original story. Finally, we look at some of the lessons for the Cochrane Collaboration, which include (1) improving the peer-review system by routinely sending out pre-prints to authors of the original studies, (2) avoiding downplay of the magnitude of errors if they occur, (3) addressing the usability issues of RevMan, and (4) making critical articles such as retraction notices open access.