J Med Ethics 37:498-503 doi:10.1136/jme.2010.041830
  • Research ethics
  • Paper

Misinformation in the medical literature: What role do error and fraud play?

  1. R Grant Steen
  1. Correspondence to Dr R Grant Steen, Medical Communications Consultants, LLC, 103 Van Doren Place, Chapel Hill, NC 27517, USA; g_steen_medicc{at}
  • Received 16 December 2010
  • Accepted 16 January 2011
  • Published Online First 22 February 2011


Media attention to retracted research suggests that a substantial number of papers are corrupted by misinformation. In reality, every paper contains misinformation; at issue is whether the balance of correct versus incorrect information is acceptable. This paper postulates that analysis of retracted research papers can provide insight into medical misinformation, although retracted papers are not a random sample of incorrect papers. Error is the most common reason for retraction and error may be the principal cause of misinformation as well. Still, one-quarter of retracted papers are fraudulent, and misinformation may also arise through fraud. This paper hypothesises that error and fraud are the main sources of misinformation and that error is more common than fraud. Retraction removes misinformation from the literature; bias is non-retracted misinformation. Bias arises when scientific impropriety results in false research findings. Impropriety can involve experimental design, data collection, data analysis, or data presentation. Yet impropriety also arises through earnest error or statistical naiveté; not all bias is fraud. Several measures are proposed to minimise misinformation in the medical literature, including: greater detail in the clinical trial registry, with rigorous definition of inclusion and exclusion criteria and primary endpoints; clear statistical criteria for every aspect of clinical trials, especially sample size; responsibility for data integrity that accrues to all named authors; increased transparency as to how the costs of research were paid; and greater clarity as to the reasons for retraction. Misinformation can arise without malicious intent; authors of incorrect papers are owed a presumption of incompetence, not malice.


  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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