Study Calling Trump ‘Main Driver’ of Vax Misinformation Retracted

In October 2021, a Reddit user on the r/badscience subforum posted a long critique of an article published in PLOS ONE  earlier that year that had analyzed the “anti-vaccination infodemic” on Twitter and concluded that former U.S. president Donald Trump was “the main driver of vaccine misinformation” on the platform before his account was suspended.

The critique, titled “Terrible PlosOne Paper Dissected,” listed concerns about the sample size (50 pro-vaccine and 50 anti-vaccine accounts), method of selecting the sample and control groups, and data analysis. The Redditor also looked at the reviews of the article which PLOS ONE made available, and concluded that “clearly neither reviewer actually read it in any detail.” 

The day after the comment was posted, an account for PLOS Communications responded, thanking the user “for your post publication peer review” and saying that PLOS ONE was looking into the article. 

According to emails seen by Retraction Watch, the PLOS publication ethics team emailed the corresponding author on the article in June 2022 with the subject line “Request for clarification about published PLOS ONE article.” 

In December, the article was retracted. 

The lengthy retraction notice detailed a back-and-forth with the authors about methodological concerns in the article. The editors concluded those concerns meant the paper “did not meet PLOS ONE‘s publication criteria,” but one of the authors told us he believes a correction could have addressed them. 

“The anti-vaccination infodemic on social media: A behavioral analysis” appeared in March 2021. Written by Federico Germani and Nikola Biller-Andorno of the Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, the paper has been cited 95 times, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science. Altmetrics shows pickup in several news stories, as well as a working paper from the World Bank.

The June email from the PLOS publication ethics team stated that “some concerns have been raised regarding your article with respect to some clarity in the reporting and methodology,” and asked the authors to submit a revision to the article with specific changes “in order to comply with our publication criteria.” 

Germani, the corresponding author, sent the journal an updated version of the paper less than two weeks after receiving the request. But he didn’t hear back for months, he told us, until an October email from the publication ethics team informed him and his co-author that the editors had decided to retract the paper. 

The email included a draft of the retraction notice listing methodological concerns, to which the authors responded in detail in their appeal of the decision. The journal rejected their appeal and sent them a revised retraction notice in November. After more back-and-forth about the wording of the notice, the retraction was published on Dec. 22, 2022. The notice began: 

Following the publication of this article [1], concerns were raised regarding the methodology, results, and conclusions presented in this article. The editorial team and a subject expert have re-evaluated the article and determined that the concerns listed below remain unresolved.

The notice listed five bullet points of concerns, including this one: 

The reported conclusion “Our data demonstrate that Donald Trump, before his profile was suspended, was the main driver of vaccine misinformation on Twitter.” is not supported by the research reported in this study. Although the reported results suggests [sic] that people who tweet anti-vaccine content are likely to be in Trump’s network, the reported results are not sufficient to support the claim that Trump himself is driving vaccine misinformation.

The rest of the notice contains the authors’ response to the concerns. About Trump:

Regarding the conclusion, the authors agreed that the sentence regarding Trump’s role, taken out of context, is not supported by the data presented in the paper, but they maintain that their results, as described in the discussion section, show that Trump’s profile was, at the time, “the main influencer in the anti-vaccination web” on Twitter.

The notice concluded: 

The PLOS ONE Editors retract this article [
1
] because, per our editorial assessment, it did not meet PLOS ONE’s publication criteria (#3, 4) [
2
]. We regret that the issues with the article were not identified and addressed prior to its publication.

Both authors did not agree with the retraction and stand by the article’s findings.

Germani told us he thought the journal’s initial request for a revision to the paper “would have been a reasonable approach.” 

He and his co-author, Biller-Andorno, disagreed with the editorial team and subject expert’s assessment of the methodological concerns, he said, but were “happy to have the opportunity to make corrections to the paper,” and the back-and-forth of corrections, or a response article and reply, “is just how science should work.”

The findings about Trump’s role in the anti-vaccine Twitter community were a surprise to him, he said, and he expressed concern that political considerations could have influenced the retraction decision: 

It’s not clear to us why this paper had to be retracted at all costs and with little communication from the journal.

Germani and Biller-Andorno have posted a revised version of the paper as a preprint, with a disclaimer detailing the history with PLOS ONE and a supplementary PDF responding to the issues listed in the retraction notice. 

e reached out to PLOS for comment on Germani’s concern that PLOS’s editors may have felt political pressure to retract the article. Renee Hoch, managing editor for publication ethics, responded: 

The claim is untrue. The retraction decision reflects PLOS’ assessment of how the unresolved issues identified in our post-publication editorial assessment aligned with the PLOS Retraction Policy and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Retraction Guidelines. External parties do not contribute to or influence our editorial decisions.

We recognize that individuals raising concerns may have potential competing interests. Our Publication Ethics team and journal editors are well-versed at evaluating potential competing interests and isolating scientific and ethical criticisms/concerns from personal assertions, opinions, or agendas that sometimes accompany complaints. We focus our investigations on the scientific and ethical concerns, and our editorial decisions reflect our assessment of how any verified and unresolved concerns align with PLOS policies, journal requirements, and relevant COPE guidance.

We had also asked through what venue concerns were raised about the paper, and Hoch pointed us to the Reddit post. As for why the issues with the paper weren’t raised during peer-review, before the article was accepted for publication, she said: 

The reddit posts discussed concerns about the article’s published peer review history. We cannot disclose any unpublished information about the article’s peer review. However, in responding to the concerns raised in this case we completed a thorough, rigorous assessment of the article and obtained input from a well-qualified expert. We regret that the issues identified in this assessment did not surface during the pre-publication peer review.

She also noted:

We addressed why these cases take so long sometimes, and why some of these issues are not caught before, in this blog post, here. It’s quite a good read.

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